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

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing and concluding….. 

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

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

(Webb, p. 39)

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

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

(Nir, p. 36)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Nir, p. 49

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

A cult defined by righteousness

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

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

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

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

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

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

βαπτισμω συνιεναι : join in baptism

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

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

Others, too, joined : Who were the others?

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

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

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

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

Nir, p. 50

For baptism to be αποδεκτός (acceptable) . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

66. Eph. 5.2: Rom. 12.1.

Nir, pp. 51f

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

Baptism, a central rite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nir, p. 48

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

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

So where does John the Baptist fit in history?

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

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

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

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

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

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


Detailed explanations of linked points above……

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


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

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing, with an interlude ….

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

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

Who is Rivka Nir?

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

Some of those titles:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in the Preface to The First Christian Believer:

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

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

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

Meeting Intellectual Bias with Honesty and Humility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most scholars agree…

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

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


Where does John the Baptist fit in History? — The Evidence of Josephus, Pt 5

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing ……

Peter Kirby focussed on the following point in his article arguing for the authenticity of the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus:

(14) The Word for “Baptism” in the Passage Uncharacteristic of Christian Usage

Kirby cited the scholar Robert Webb who pointed out that the words for “baptism” in the John the Baptist passage in Josephus’s Antiquities (βάπτισις, βαπτισμός), are not the typical “Christian” words and concluded therefore that it is unlikely that this passage came from the pen of a Christian interpolator. I put “Christian” in inverted commas because Webb conflates “Christian” with New Testament literature. But of course Christians produced much literature beyond what is found in the NT that sheds light on this question.

Peter Kirby quoted and elaborated on Webb’s point but overlooked Rivka Nir’s rebuttal of Webb — even though he selectively critiqued the same article by Nir later in his post. Nir wrote:

It is true that the passage does not use βάπτισμα, the most common term for Christian baptism. But the two terms — βάπτισις and βαπτισμός — likewise denote Christian baptism. On βάπτισις see Athanasius Alexandrinus, Quaestiones in Scripturas 41 (PG 28, col. 725); Sozomenus Salaminus, Historia ecclesiastica 2.34, I (PG 67, col. 1029); Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, p. 284; on βαπτισμός see Heb. 6.2; Chrys. Hom. Ad Heraeos 9.2 (PG 63, col. 78). And especially important for my thesis is its use of heretical ablutions. On frequent ritual washing of Ebionites: Epiph. Haer. 30.2 (PG 41, col. 408); on Marcionite repetition of baptism for remission of post-baptismal sins, see Epiph. Haer. 42.3 (PG 41, col. 700); on Sampsean baptism, see Epiph. Haer. 53.1 (PG 41, col. 960). See Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, p. 288.

(Nir, p. 35)

So let’s see those references. Yes, they are later than Josephus (as is most of the NT, I think most would agree) . . .

Athanasius Alexandrinus, Quaestiones in Scripturas 41 (PG 28, col. 725 [scroll to page 5, see there τὴν βάπτι σιν] — a fourth century source. Too late, you say? Sozomenus Salaminus is even later — early fifth century. Lampe’s  Lexicon?

p. 284:

p. 288

Hebrews 6:2

βαπτισμων διδαχης επιθεσεως τε χειρων αναστασεως τε νεκρων και κριματος αιωνιου
Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.

I have not been able to find very quickly Greek texts of the other sources so if anyone would like to help out there feel free to contact me with the links. (English language texts are easy to find.)

Webb writes:

Josephus is knowledgeable concerning the βαπτ- word group, for he uses the verbs βαπτιζω 13 times and βαπτω three times.20 He uses no other nouns for ‘baptism’ than those used here, which is quite strange if this text is a Christian interpolation. He never uses the noun βαπτισμα, which is the usual Christian noun for baptism (both John’s baptism and Christian baptism), and we would expect that term here if this text was a Christian interpolation.21 Therefore, the use of this vocabulary is hardly evidence for Christian interpolation.

20 βαπτιζω: War 1.437; 2.476; 2.556; 3.368; 3.423; 3.525; 3.527; 4.137; Ant. 4.81; 9.212; 10.169; 15.55; Life 15; βαπτω: War 1.490; 4.563; Ant 3.102

21 Furthermore, Josephus’ word βαπτισις is never used in the NT or early Christian literature. The other noun he uses, βαπτισμος, is only used for washing dishes (Mk 7.4), or ritual washings (Heb. 6.2; 9.10). The only place it is used for Christian baptism is Col. 2.12, where it is textually uncertain. BAGD, 132; Oepke, ‘βαπτω’, 1.545.

The sentence I have highlighted with bolded type can be misleading to lay readers. As written, it sounds like Josephus speaks of “baptism” with some frequency by using a term alien to Christian usage. But no, that’s not correct at all. Look at all the instances where Josephus uses  βαπτιζω (13 times) and βαπτω (3 times). In no instance would I expect any translator to render the English word “baptism”. They are mostly about drowning or plunging deep….



1:437 …. [Herod] sent [Jonathan], by night, to Jericho and there, by his orders, he was plunged into the bathing-pool by the Gauls and drowned.

2.476 …. Then Simon, after slaying every member of his family, stood conspicuously over the bodies, and raising his right hand aloft for all to see, he plunged the sword up to the hilt into his own throat….

2.556 …. After the disastrous defeat of Cestius, many prominent Jews abandoned the City like swimmers, a sinking ship….

3.368 …. There is no greater coward than the captain who, fearing the stormy sea, deliberately sinks his ship before the tempest.

3.423 …. It dashed some of the ships to pieces against each other on the spot, others it drove onto the rocks. As the waves surged forward, many pushed their way out into deeper waters — so frightened were they of the rock-strewn coast, but even in the open sea the mountainous waves overwhelmed them.

3.525 …. when they ventured to approach, they had no time to do anything before disaster overtook them and they were sent to the bottom, boats and all.

3.537 …. If any of those who had been plunged into the water came to the surface, they were quickly dispatched with an arrow or a raft overtook them.

4.137 …. for supplies which might have been adequate for the combatants were squandered upon a useless and idle mob, who in addition to war brought upon themselves faction and starvation.


4.81 …. When therefore any persons were defiled by a dead body, they put a little of these ashes into spring water, with hyssop, and, dipping part of these ashes in it, they sprinkled them with it, both on the third day, and on the seventh, and after that they were clean.

9.212 …. and the ship was just going to be drowned, and when they were animated to do it by the prophet himself, and by the fear concerning their own safety, they cast him into the sea; upon which the sea became calm. It is also reported that Jonah was swallowed down by a whale, and that when he had been there three days, and as many nights, he was vomited out upon the Euxine Sea . . . .

10.169 …. and when Ishmael saw him in that case, and that he was drowned in his cups to the degree of insensibility, and fallen asleep, he rose up on a sudden, with his ten friends, and slew Gedaliah, and those that were with him at the feast . . . .

15.55 …. Now the nature of that place was hotter than ordinary; so they went out in a body, and of a sudden, and in a vein of madness; and as they stood by the fish-ponds, of which there were large ones about the house, they went to cool themselves [by bathing], because it was in the midst of a hot day. At first they were only spectators of Herod’s servants and acquaintance as they were swimming; but after a while, the young man, at the instigation of Herod, went into the water among them, while such of Herod’s acquaintance, as he had appointed to do it, dipped him as he was swimming, and plunged him under water, in the dark of the evening, as if it had been done in sport only; nor did they desist till he was entirely suffocated. And thus was Aristobulus murdered . . .


15 …. Accordingly I came to Rome, though it were through a great number of hazards by sea; for as our ship was drowned in the Adriatic Sea, we that were in it, being about six hundred in number, 2 swam for our lives all the night; when, upon the first appearance of the day, and upon our sight of a ship of Cyrene, I and some others, eighty in all, by God’s providence, prevented the rest, and were taken up into the other ship.



1.490 …. Now that the war had engulfed the whole region . . .

4.563 ….  Yet though they wore women’s faces, their hands were murderous. They would approach with mincing steps, then suddenly became fighting men, and, whipping out their swords from under their dyed cloaks, they would run through every passer-by.

I am unable to find his “βαπτω” reference in Book 3.

One rarely encounters such a lopsided argument in scholarship, (I hope).

Josephus doesn’t use any βαπτ- words for “baptism” at all. Rather, for that ritual he uses words more usually translated as washing or bathing: λούεσθαι, ἀπολούεσθαι. I quote Rivka Nir again (note that Nir explicitly addresses Webb — another detail Kirby overlooked):

Yet, as of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a number of scholars raised the possibility that this passage is a Christian interpolation, notably Heinrich Graetz, who called it ‘a brazen forgery’ (unverschämte Interpolation).5 Arguing against its authenticity, scholars questioned its integration into the text: it interrupts the sequence of events and flow of syntax, and could therefore be easily removed.6 They puzzled over its positive and supportive tone towards John which is inconsistent with Josephus, the fierce opponent of anyone seeking to challenge the legitimate government or promote change or rebellion of any sort.7 They were equally puzzled by the presence of βαπτιστής, which became the distinctive epithet for John the Baptist in Christian sources.8 That Josephus would use this most explicitly Christian term and leave it unexplained, especially in a work addressed to Greek and Roman readers, they found hard to believe.9 On this point, further incredulity is raised by the presence of βαπτισμός and βάπτισις, the two terms used in the passage for the immersion associated with John. Being quintessentially Christian terms that Christian tradition applied to Christian baptism,10 they occur in Josephus only within this passage, marking divergence from his usual usage of terms associated with the Jewish ritual of immersion—λούεσθαι, ἀπολούεσθαι, meaning to purify a person from external physical defilement.11

5 ) H. Graetz, Geschichte der Juden, III (Leipzig: O. Leiner, 1893), p. 276 n. 3. See further S. Krauss, Das Leben Jesu nach jüdischen Quellen (Berlin: S. Calvary & Co, 1902), p. 257; E. Schürer, Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes im Zeitalter Jesu Christi (Hildesheim: G. Olms, 1964; 4th edn 1886), I, p. 438, n. 24; G. Dalman, Sacred Sites and Ways: Studies in the Topography of the Gospels (London: SPCK, 1935; first published 1919), p. 98. See also J. Efron, Studies on the Hasmonean Period (Leiden: Brill, 1987), p. 334 n. 218, who claims the paragraph on James, the brother of Jesus, is likewise a Christian interpolation, pp. 334-36.

6 ) L. Herrmann, Chrestos. Témoignages paients et juifs sur le christianisme du premier siècle (Brussels: Latomus, Revue d’Etudes Latines, 1970), p. 99; idem, ‘Herodiade’, REJ 132 (1973), pp. 49-63 (51).

7 ) Schürer, Geschichte des Jüdischen Volkes, I, p. 438 n. 24; E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ (175 bc–ad 135), New English Version, revised and edited by G. Vermes and F. Millar (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1973), I, p. 346; M. Goguel, Au seuil l’évangile Jean Baptiste (Paris: Payot, 1928), p. 19; Meier, A Marginal Jew, II, p. 99.

8 ) This name appears in first-century ce Greek only in the synoptic Gospels: Mk 1.4 ὁ βαπτίζων; Mt. 3.1; 11.11-12; 14.2-8; 16.14; 17.13; Lk. 7.20-33; 9.19—ὁ βαπτιστὴς. F. W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 165. See also Just. Dial. 50.2; G.W.H. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1961), p. 288; A. Oepke, s.v. βάπτω, βαπτισμός, βαπτιστής, TDNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), I, pp. 545-46. The common reply to this argument is that use of the same name in the Gospels and Josephus is evidence that this was his known and unique nickname: e.g. Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, pp. 34, 168. But, neither in Acts of the Apostles nor in the fourth Gospel is this nickname attached to John.

9 ) Graetz, Geschichte der Juden, p. 276, n. 3; Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, p. 33.

10) It is true that the passage does not use βάπτισμα, the most common term for Christian baptism. But the two terms— βάπτισις and βαπτισμός —likewise denote Christian baptism. On βάπτισις see Athanasius Alexandrinus, Quaestiones in Scripturas 41 (PG 28, col. 725); Sozomenus Salaminus, Historia ecclesiastica 2.34, I (PG 67, col. 1029); Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, p. 284; on βαπτισμός see Heb. 6.2; Chrys. Hom. Ad Heraeos 9.2 (PG 63, col. 78). And especially important for my thesis is its use of heretical ablutions. On frequent ritual washing of Ebionites: Epiph. Haer. 30.2 (PG 41, col. 408); on Marcionite repetition of baptism for remission of post-baptismal sins, see Epiph. Haer. 42.3 (PG 41, col. 700); on Sampsean baptism, see Epiph. Haer. 53.1 (PG 41, col. 960). See Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, p. 288.

11) See K.H. Rengstorf, A Complete Concordance to Flavius Josephus (Leiden: Brill, 2002), I, p. 290. Typically, this verb is used in reference to Bannus and to the Essenes, as I will show below.

So the words for “baptism” in the Josephan passage are indeed found in Christian usage, in particular in relation to “non-orthodox” Christian baptisms. They may appear late but they do refer to early “heretics” like the Marcionites and Ebionites. Moreover, the same words are never found in Josephus to mean the ritual “baptism” in any other place except in the suspect John the Baptist passage.

A good rule of thumb in academia when trying to overturn an argument is first to set out the targeted argument as strongly as you possibly can — so strongly that its exponents will wish they had put it like that. THEN proceed to dismantle it. That is not what Peter Kirby’s article has done. Rather, Kirby appears not to have even read the entirety of the Rivka Nir article of which he selects decontextualized paragraphs to criticize.

Note: None of the above proves that the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities by Josephus is an interpolation. I hope I have made it clear in this series of posts that I cannot prove that the passage is either inauthentic or even authentic. My sole interest is in trying to raise some awareness among anyone interested that the status of the passage is questionable. It may be authentic. At the same time, however, it is not unreasonable, certainly not “hyper-sceptical”, to entertain serious doubts about its authenticity. Does not the above at least open the door to a reasonable suspicion that the passage is of Christian origin?

Therefore, I suggest that attempts to settle the question by weighing pros and cons miss the point. If one wishes to argue that an argument either way (pro or against authenticity) is unreasonable, is illogical, is invalid for some other reason, then fine — make the case. But trying to win a debate by arguing that one person is more persuaded by one set of arguments than another seems to me to be a waste of time as far as making any relevant contribution to source criticism is concerned. But I will be addressing more generally the potential evidence of Josephus for the historian in the final post of this series.

Kirby, Peter. “The Authenticity of John the Baptist in Josephus.” Peter Kirby: Just Another WordPress Site (blog), May 21, 2015. https://peterkirby.com/john-the-baptist-authentic.html.

Nir, Rivka. “Josephus’ Account of John the Baptist: A Christian.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 10, no. 1 (2012): 32–62.

Webb, Robert L. John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Sociohistorical Study. Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2006.


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

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by Neil Godfrey


(3) The Passage’s Reference to God’s Punishment of Herod

Peter Kirby asserts that contradictory viewpoints in Josephus are no reason to suspect the involvement of an alien hand somewhere in the transmission of our manuscripts. He quotes my (somewhat facile) paraphrase of Zindler’s point:

Neil Godfrey notes another one of the reasons that Zindler gives for suspecting an interpolation here:

In the John the Baptist paragraph the author writes that the reason Herod’s army was
defeated by Aretas was because God was punishing him for his unjust treatment of John.

But nope, that’s not the view of Josephus elsewhere. A few paragraphs later (18.7.2) Josephus writes:

And thus did God punish Herodias for her envy at her brother, and Herod also for giving ear to the vain discourses of a woman.

Kirby’s response is to suggest that Josephus could have thought both things at different times:

These are entirely different episodes, at different times, with different putative causes, and with different results. It is no difficulty to suppose that Josephus could have said both things. It is not as though Herod Antipas could be visited with God’s punishment only one time and for only one reason in the mind of Josephus. That is, the argument has no value even if we do conflate the opinion of “the Jews” with the personal opinion of Josephus in the Baptist passage. This argument might have some force, if the other passage were speaking of the cause being found for the destruction of Herod Antipas’ army as a punishment from God (instead of the cause being found for the banishment of Herod Antipas and his wife as a punishment from God).

That’s all very reasonable but it is also entirely ad hoc rationalisation. It may even be that Josephus, like most of us at some times, did hold contradictory or somewhat inconsistent views. Two things are worth keeping in mind, though.

The first one I should address is my “somewhat facile paraphrase” of Zindler’s argument. Kirby is not tackling Zindler but my summary as if it is the full account of Zindler’s view. Here is what Zindler wrote (and I hope I would today be more careful in how I express the ideas of others than I did in this instance in 2011):

A second … reason for concluding paragraph 2 is an interpolation is that in it Josephus cites – without indicating he believes otherwise – the supposed Jewish view that Herod came to a bad end because of his execution of the Baptist. Elsewhere [18:7:1; 18:255], however, Josephus gives his own – differing – view of why his god punished Herodias and Herod: “And so God visited this punishment on Herodias for her envy of her brother and on Herod for listening to a woman’s frivolous chatter” [Feldman translation]. 

(Zindler, The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, 98)

Making sense of the scenario as described

Scholarly views that the account of John the Baptist only makes sense if JtB were more than a preacher of ethics and was rather (or as a rationale for his ethics) preaching the coming of a messiah, a feature otherwise deplored by Josephus:

Meier, Marginal Jew Vol 2, p 61 “… in Josephus John is reduced to a popular moral philosopher in the Greco-Roman mode, with a slight hint of a neo-Pythagorean performing ritual lustrations. His message is summed up in those twin virtues seen in Philo and other Jewish Diaspora authors: justice toward one another and piety toward God. The whole point of a special, once-and-for-all baptism, to be administered to Jews only by John (hence his surname), becomes unintelligible. If the Synoptic portrait of the Baptist did not exist, something like it would have to be invented to supply the material that Josephus either suppresses or simply does not know. In a sense, Josephus’ portrait of the Baptist is self transcending; it points beyond itself to some further explanation Josephus does not offer.”

Thomas, Mouvement Baptiste, pp 78-83The call to the practice of virtue must be placed within the context of Jewish beliefs; it can only be understood in the line of the prophets: justice and piety must prepare for the coming kingdom. What the crowds must have sought and found in John’s speeches is above all the “good news” of the messianic times, what Saint Matthew calls the proximity of the kingdom of God. . . . However, John’s success, the enthusiasm of the crowd, and Herod’s fears speak volumes and prove that this messianic aspect was not absent from John’s speeches. Moreover, only messianic hope could enthuse the people at that time. . . . So, therefore, the preaching and baptism of John, even for Josephus, despite his denial, have a messianic significance; for him, as for the evangelists, John preaches and baptizes in view of repentance, which in turn is meant to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. This is what emerges from the text when properly understood; it also explains both the great success of John and Herod’s apprehensions, ultimately leading to the imprisonment and death of John. Only the announcement of the imminent messianic times could attract the masses and persuade them to embark on a widespread movement of “conversion” and repentance; only the fear of a messianic uprising could touch Herod and prompt him to take drastic measures against John.” (translation from the French)

Schürer, History of the Jewish People Vol 1, p. 346 “The powerful preacher undoubtedly caused a great stir which was indeed primarily religious but was certainly not without a political impact. For at that tune the mass of the people were unable to differentiate between their religious and political hopes.”

Whose opinion?

So what we read in Josephus is that “the Jews” or “some of the Jews” held a belief that God punished Herod because of his treatment of John the Baptist. It is later that Josephus writes point blank that God punished Herod listening to the bad advice of a woman.

The question then becomes a far more interesting one. Try to imagine how Josephus came to know that back around the time he (Josephus) was born, “the Jews” and/or “some of the Jews” were in some way declaring (speaking? writing? across generations?) that Herod had met his demise because of his treatment of John the Baptist. Surely the only Jews who would have held such a view were those who were followers of, or at least very sympathetic towards, John the Baptist. But have we not seen that Josephus has provided no credible reason that a large number of ordinary Jewish people would have gathered in large mobs that looked frightening enough to make Herod alarmed for his safety. The scenario we read lacks a plausible explanation.

No, all that we learn from Josephus is that John the Baptist gathered large crowds, so large that the king feared they might turn violently against him, because he was teaching high moral principles, righteousness.

I find that scenario difficult to imagine in reality. (For more background to the argument I am setting out here see below.) I find it far easier to side with those scholars [see side box for some examples] who suggest that the only plausible explanation for the popularity of John the Baptist is that he had been stirring up hopes for a soon-coming messiah. With all that we think we know about Josephus, how could he ever have brought himself to speak any praises at all about such a figure.

And what kind of tradition was supposedly being circulated in Judea a generation or two later so that Josephus learned about these Jews who had enough critical mass for their ideas — that a preacher who won mass followers for preaching ethics and baptizing followers Qumran-style — to be recorded? Recall what we read in Antiquities:

But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, called the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead righteous lives and practice justice towards their fellows and piety toward God to join in baptism. . . .

. . . . When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons. Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did.

What sorts of things were they doing under the sway of John’s eloquent persuasion that so alarmed Herod of John’s power? This account is all very vague but what it lacks in realistic historical detail it makes up for with richness of ideological traits that match what we read in the New Testament.

Is it likely that Jews or “some Jews” in the time of Josephus were reminding everyone that God punished Herod because he killed a man who attracted a popular following for preaching righteousness. I find the scenario hard to grasp for two reasons: that preaching high ethics attracts such a large following from the hoi polloi so that a king feels threatened; that more than a generation later such an unrealistic episode was still being talked about, such was its impact, that the only record of such a “unrealistically(?)” remarkable person and event found went otherwise unrecorded – not even noticed in later rabbinic writings who loved to speak of notables from the Second Temple era.

Am I being unrealistic? Hyper-sceptical? Misreading Josephus? (Serious questions)

Cui Bono?

In my defence against anyone who thinks so, I would like to point to another discussion of different viewpoints found in an ancient historical source. In Herodotus’s Histories one finds two different reasons given to explain the escape of Croesus from a fiery death, although in this case the two different reasons are artfully combined in a single episode. One of the reasons is attributed to “the Lydians”, reminding us that one of the reasons in Josephus for Herod’s demise is attributed to “the Jews”. (The other reason, in both Herodotus and Josephus, is stated as if it were the author’s own opinion.) One scholar attempts to trace the origin of the Lydian view and does so through the following manner:

An important heuristic device seems to me to be a question that is often used fruitfully in criminology in the absence of clear evidence: Cui bono? Who benefited from using a specific source to support a specific statement in a specific context? (Heinz-Günther Nesselrath p. 87, translation)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Nir, p. 45)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ChatGPT translation:

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

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

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

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



Kirby, Peter. “The Authenticity of John the Baptist in Josephus.” Peter Kirby: Just Another WordPress Site, 21 May 2015, https://peterkirby.com/john-the-baptist-authentic.html.

Nir, Rivka. “Josephus’ Account of John the Baptist: A Christian.” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 10, no. 1 (2012): 32–62. https://www.academia.edu/9556504/Josephus_Account_of_John_the_Baptist_A_Christian


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

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing to respond to The Authenticity of John the Baptist in Josephus. The previous two posts —

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

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

I would like to reiterate an approach I attempted to emphasize in my opening salvo. I am not arguing a black and white, slam-dunk case. If such existed there would be no discussion about this passage. One does not have to be persuaded one way or the other. I myself do not know if the John the Baptist passage in Josephus is an interpolation. It might be authentic. The best we can do is examine it critically. I think humility requires us to accept that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting it is an interpolation. Given those reasonable arguments there is necessarily some room for doubt. That means that the honest historian cannot dogmatically declare that Josephus wrote that passage. A historical reconstruction cannot validly be built on the conviction that Josephus wrote it — unless one makes clear the questionable nature of one of the foundations of that hypothetical reconstruction. I do not believe I am being hyper-sceptical or extreme. Rather than label arguments as “weak” or “not persuasive” — which sound like subjective impressions to me —  I prefer to address whether arguments are logically valid or invalid and if they can marshal support with relevant evidence. To repeat, it doesn’t matter if one is persuaded or not. What matters is that one recognises that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting the authenticity of the passage. I understand why there will be some dogmatic and emotional resistance to that idea, but dogmatism and emotional attachment are not always the most faithful of friends — especially when working with ancient texts that come from a “culture of interpolations“.

By the way, I have never encountered historians in other (non-biblical) fields build historical reconstructions that rely on disputed evidence on which to stake their “facts” — at least not without acknowledging that the evidence for their claims is disputed. That’s not how history is done elsewhere, as far as I am aware. And the reason I believe I so often find myself at variance with certain conventional wisdoms in biblical studies is because I am always trying to examine the evidence with the same critical methods as are taken for granted in other historical fields. That means I have little time for “criteria of authenticity” and “memory theory” which seem to me to have a unique place in biblical scholarship.

Here is the John the Baptist passage in Jewish Antiquities 18.116-119

But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, called the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead righteous lives and practice justice towards their fellows and piety toward God to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying [on the condition] that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by righteousness. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons. Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation, and see his mistake. Though John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus, the stronghold that we have previously mentioned, and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod. (Nir, pp. 32f)

. . .

The next point Peter Kirby presents is more technical. He copies at length from another forum one side of a discussion about the place and use of δὲ, a word often but not always translated as “but”.

(15) Ant. 18.120 Incongruous without Ant. 18.116-119 (and Appropriate As-Is)

Here is Kirby’s point:

If Ant. 18.116-119 is removed from the text, it would read:

[Greek text omitted]

So Herod wrote about these affairs to Tiberius, who being very angry at the attempt made by Aretas, wrote to Vitellius to make war upon him, and either to take him alive, and bring him to him in bonds, or to kill him, and send him his head. This was the charge that Tiberius gave to the president of Syria. […]

“But” [δὲ] Vitellius prepared to make war with Aretas, …

This conjunction δὲ is not translated in the readily-available Whiston and Feldman in a way that makes the full force of the difficulty above in the Greek apparent to the English reader. Feldman leaves it untranslated, while Whiston translates it as “so” (which is actually not inappropriate, if it is understood in the very specific English sense of resuming the narrative after an interruption or parenthesis, as it functions after the passage on John the Baptist, not in some different sense of the English). Yet it is very strange if the passage reads as it is shown above.

Oh so close….. Yes, Whiston translates δὲ as “so” and we will soon see that that is indeed a most appropriate translation but not for the reason Kirby proposes.

Kirby follows with a lengthy selection from another forum by citing snippets from one side of a discussion on the use of this δὲ.

Focusing on the one word δὲ alone, though, draws attention away from the fact that what we have here are two words, a correlation, μὲν … δὲ, that are normally a linked pair to express meanings such as the following:

  • both…and,
  • on the one hand…on the other,
  • one person [did such and such]….another person [did this and that],
  • some [said]….others [said],

The Perseus online Liddell & Scott dictionary explains that δὲ can be an adversative (=”but”) and also a copulative (=”and”, “so” etc)

As for translations of the μένδέ pair, the same dictionary explains:

Generally, μέν and δέ may be rendered on the one hand, on the other hand, or as well . . , as, while or whereas, but it is often necessary to leave μέν untranslated.

Here’s an instance in Acts 14:4

εσχισθη δε το πληθος της πολεως και οι μεν ησαν συν τοις ιουδαιοις οι δε συν τοις αποστολοις

But the people of the city were divided some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles

From Dobson’s Learn New Testament Greek:

μὲν…δὲ . . .

When two ideas or words are compared or contrasted they are often liked by μὲν… and δὲ …. In English we often use “but” for δὲ. We do not have a word which quite corresponds to μὲν. “On the one hand” and “on the other hand” are rather too weighty for μὲν and δὲ.

(p. 263)

Ken Olson has written in a forum discussion:

The μὲν … δὲ construction distinguishes one party’s activities from those of another. There’s no requirement of a cause and effect relationship between the two, nor that they be in opposition. To use an example that springs readily to my mind, Jesus in the Testimonium Flavianum won over many of the Jews, but also many of Hellenes. What would be irregular is for the μὲν not to be related to the δὲ which follows it.

(the bolding is mine in all quotations)

Other works explain that this correlative was far more common in classical Greek than it was in New Testament and later times. But a search for μέν and δέ in the Loeb editions of Antiquities will quickly show anyone interested that Josephus made frequent use of it. 

With all of that in mind, we are now in a position to grasp Rivka Nir’s discussion of how the John the Baptist passage can be understood to intrude into otherwise naturally sequential sentences or passages. It can be read as breaking apart the μένδέ structure beyond recognition.

How this passage is integrated into the text is suspect. Inserted midway into the description of events following the defeat of Herod Antipas, betweenTiberius’s order to Vitellius to prepare for war against Aretas and Vitellius’s preparations, it constitutes a self-contained literary unit that disrupts the descriptive sequence.38 In terms of syntax, as Léon Herrmann has pointed out,39 it is inserted halfway through a sentence structured on καί μέν and δε, which suggest the narrative sequence. Namely, between paragraph 115, which concludes with the sentence: ‘These were the orders that Tiberius gave to the proconsul of Syria [και Τιβέριος μέν ταυ τα πράσσειν έπέστελλεντω κατά Συρίαν στρατηγώ]’, and paragraph 120, which opens with the sentence: ‘So Vitellius prepared to make war with Aretas . . . and made haste for Petra, and came to Ptolemais [Ούιτέλλιος δέ παρασκευασάμενοςώς εις πόλεμον τόν προς Αρέταν. . . έπι της Πέτρας ήπείγετο καί έσχε Πτολεμαίδα]’. On removal of the passage, paragraph 120, flows smoothly and uninterruptedly from paragraph 115, and the order of events and correct syntactical structure are retained: Tiberius commands and Vitellius acts.

38. For Meier (A Marginal Jew, 11. pp. 56. 59-60). this literary unit is. by way of an inclusio. framed by certain key words and themes clustered at the beginning and the end. Il opens with ‘But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, called the Baptist’, and ends with ‘and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw lit to inflict such a blow on Herod’.

39. Herrmann. Chrestos, p. 99; L. Herrmann. ’Herodiade’, REJ 132 (1973), pp. 49-63 (51).

(Nir, 43f)

In addition…

Furthermore, Josephus had already explained how ‘all Herod’s army was destroyed by the treachery of some fugitives, who, though they were of the tetrarchy of Philip, joined with Aretas’s army’ (Ant. 114), his seemingly historical explanation for Herod’s defeat which is placed in the appropriate context. Why, then, would Josephus need to provide an additional explanation? And why place it at a distance from his first explanation, and moreover in a way that interrupts the factual sequence?

(Nir, 44)

It is at this point that Nir addressed the chronological and political incongruities vis a vis the New Testament — as quoted in the previous post.

Kirby then introduces the arguments for inauthenticity:

(1) The Text Reads Intelligibly if the Passage Is Removed

We have just seen how syntactic irregularity can be restored if the passage is removed. So a more general “intelligibility” is not the only factor open for consideration.

We also know that Josephus elsewhere broke a narrative with digressions. What is of interest, though, is a comparison of other places where Josephus makes those (removable) digressions. I have selected the “removable” insert passages from Kirby’s list but want to draw attention to how the narrative on either side of those inserts flows. Above we saw how the John the Baptist passage seems to break into what we would expect to be a tight syntactical structure. It interrupts two sentences that belong naturally together: the emperor gives the order and the proconsul obeys. Compare the surrounding passages in each of the following digressions and see if you can find anything similar. Or are the breaks more natural, more logical, such that the digression does not rip apart something like an ordered action and its correlative partner-statement that it was obeyed?

Honi the Circle-Drawer (c. 65 BCE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 14.21-28. 

Because of these promises which were made to him, Aretas marched against Aristobulus with an army of fifty thousand horsemen and foot soldiers as well, and defeated him in battle. After his victory many deserted to Hyrcanus, and Aristobulus, being left alone, fled to Jerusalem. Thereupon the Arab king took his whole army and attacked the temple, where he besieged Aristobulus ; and the citizens, joining Hyrcanus’ side, assisted him in the siege, while only the priests remained loyal to Aristobulus. . . .

And so Aretas placed the camps of the Arabs and Jews next to one another, and pressed the siege vigorously. But as this action took place at the time of observing the festival of Unleavened Bread, which we call Phaska, the Jews of best repute left the country and fled to Egypt. Now there was a certain The saintly Oni Onias, who, being a righteous man and dear to God, had once in a rainless period prayed to God to end the drought, and God had heard his prayer and sent rain; this man hid himself when he saw that the civil war continued to rage, but he was taken to the camp of the Jews and was asked to place a curse on Aristobulus and his fellow-rebels, just as he had, by his prayers, put an end to the rainless period. But when in spite of his refusals and excuses he was forced to speak by the mob, he stood up in their midst and said, “ O God, king of the universe, since these men standing beside me are Thy people, and those who are besieged are Thy priests, I beseech Thee not to hearken to them against these men nor to bring to pass what these men ask Thee to do to those others.” And when he had prayed in this manner the villains among the Jews who stood round him stoned him to death. (2) But God straightway punished them for this savagery, and exacted satisfaction for the murder of Onias in the following manner. While the priests and Aristobulus were being besieged, there happened to come round the festival called Phaska, at which it is our custom to offer numerous sacrifices to God. But as Aristobulus and those with him lacked victims, they asked their countrymen to furnish them with these, and take as much money for the victims as they wished. And when these others demanded that they pay a thousand drachmas for each animal they wished to get, Aristobulus and the priests willingly accepted this price and gave them the money, which they let down from the walls by a rope. Their countrymen, however, after receiving the money did not deliver the victims, but went to such lengths of villainy that they violated their pledges and acted impiously toward God by not furnishing the sacrificial victims to those who were in need of them.* But the priests, on suffering this breach of faith, prayed to God to exact satisfaction on their behalf from their countrymen ; and He did not delay their punishment, but sent a mighty and violent wind to destroy the crops of the entire country, so that people at that time had to pay eleven drachmas for a modius of wheat.

. . . Meanwhile Pompey sent Scaurus also to Syria, as he himself was in Armenia, still making war on Tigranes. And when Scaurus came to Damascus, he found that Lollius and Metellus had just taken the city, and so he hurried on to Judaea. On his arrival envoys came to him from both Aristobulus and Hyrcanus, each of whom asked him to come to his aid.

(All translations are from the Loeb edition of Antiquities.)

Galilean Cave Brigands (c. 38 BCE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 14.415-430. 

Herod, however, did not choose to remain inactive, but sent off his brother Joseph to Idumaea with two thousand foot-soldiers and four hundred mounted men, while he himself went to Samaria, where he left his mother and his other relatives, who had by now made their way out of Masada, and proceeded to Galilee to capture some of the strongholds which had been occupied by the garrisons of Antigonus. He reached Sepphoris in a snow-storm, and as Antigonus’ garrison had quietly withdrawn, he came into possession of an abundance of provisions. . . .

From here he then sent out a troop of cavalry and three companies of foot-soldiers against some brigands living in caves, for he had made up his mind to put an end to their depredations’; these caves were very near a village called Arbela. Forty days later he himself came with his entire army, and under the enemy’s bold attack the left wing of his line gave way, but when he appeared in person with a compact body of men, he put to flight those who had before been victorious, and rallied those of his men who were fleeing. And he pressed on in pursuit of the enemy as far as the river Jordan, to which they fled along different roads ; and so he got into his hands all the people of Galilee except those who lived in the caves? he then distributed money, giving each of his men a hundred and fifty drachmas, and considerably more to the officers, and dismissed them to their winter quarters. Meanwhile Silo and the officers of the men who were in winter quarters came to him because Antigonus was unwilling to furnish them with food; that worthy had fed them for a month and no longer he had, moreover, sent out orders to the inhabitants round about that they were to gather up all the provisions throughout the country and flee to the hills in order that the Romans might be entirely without necessary food and so perish of hunger. Accordingly Herod entrusted the care of these men to Pheroras, his youngest brother, and ordered him to fortify Alexandreion also. And he quickly made it possible for the soldiers to have an abundance of the necessary provisions, and also restored Alexandreion, which had been left in ruins. About the same time, while Antony was staying at Athens, Ventidius in Syria sent for Silo to join him against the Parthians, but instructed him first to assist Herod in the present war and then summon their allies to the Romans’ own war. But Herod, who was hastening against the brigands in the caves, sent Silo off to Ventidius, and set out against them by himself. Now their caves were in hills that were altogether rugged, having their entrances half-way up the sheer cliffs and being surrounded by sharp rocks; in such dens did they lurk with all their people. Thereupon the king, whose men were unable either to climb up from below or creep upon them from above because of the steepness of the hill, had cribs built and lowered these upon them with iron chains as they were suspended by a machine from the summit of the hill. The cribs were filled with armed men holding great grappling hooks, with which they were supposed to draw towards them any of the brigands who opposed them, and kill them by hurling them to the ground. The lowering of the cribs was proving to be a risky business because of the immense depth that lay below them, although the men within them had everything they needed. But when the cribs were let down, none of the men standing near the entrances of the caves dared come forward? instead, they remained quiet out of fear, whereupon one of the soldiers in irritation at the delay caused by the brigands who dared not come out, girded on his sword, and heading on with both hands to the chain from which the crib was suspended, lowered himself to the entrance of a cave. And when he came opposite an entrance, he first drove back with javelins most of those who were standing there, and then with his grappling hook drew his opponents towards him and pushed them over the precipice; after this he attacked those within and slaughtered many of them, whereupon he re-entered the crib and rested. Then fear seized the others as they heard the shrieking, and they despaired of their lives; all action, however, was halted by the coming on of night; and many, after sending spokesmen with the king’s consent, surrendered and made their submission. The same method of attack was used the following day, when the men in the baskets d fell upon them still more fiercely and fought at their doors and threw flaming fire inside, and so the caves, which had much wood in them, were set on fire. Now there was an old man shut up within one of the caves with his seven children and his wife : and when they begged him to let them slip through to the enemy, he stood at the entrance and cut down each of his sons as he came out, and afterwards his wife, and after hurling their dead bodies over the precipice, threw himself down upon them, thus submitting to death rather than to slavery. But before doing so, he bitterly reviled Herod for his meanness of spirit, although the king—for he was a witness of what was happening—stretched out his right hand and promised him full immunity. By such methods, then, all the caves were finally taken.

. . . The king thereupon appointed Ptolemy general in that region, and departed for Samaria with six hundred mounted men and three thousand foot-soldiers to try the issue of battle with Antigonus. 

The next “insert” passages by Josephus are actually a series of incidents all grouped together. So I will quote the edges of the bracketing narrative before and after them.

Meanwhile continuous and countless new tumults filled Judaea, and in many quarters many men rose in arms either in hope of personal gain or out of hatred for the Jews. For example, two thousand of the soldiers who had once campaigned with Herod and had been disbanded, now assembled in Judaea itself and fought against the king’s troops. These were led against them by Achiab, a cousin of Herod, but he was forced out of the plains into higher country by the enemy, who were very experienced in warfare, and by retreating to an inaccessible position, he saved what he could. . . .

Judas son of Hezekiah (c. 4 BCE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 17.271-272.

Then there was Judas, the son of the brigand chief Ezekias, who had been a man of great power and had been captured by Herod only with great difficulty. This Judas got together a large number of desperate.men at Sepphoris in Galilee and there made an assault on the royal palace, and having seized all the arms that were stored there, he armed every single one of his men and made off with all the property that had been seized there. He became an object of terror to all men by plundering those he came across in his desire for great possessions and his ambition for royal rank, a prize that he expected to obtain not through the practice of virtue but through excessive ill-treatment of others.

Simon of Peraea (c. 4 BCE) ~ Jewish War 2.57-59 and Jewish Antiquities 17.273-277. (Removable.)

There was also Simon, a slave of King Herod but a handsome man, who took pre-eminence by size and bodily strength, and was expected to go farther. Elated by the unsettled conditions of affairs, he was bold enough to place the diadem on his head, and having got together a body of men, he was himself also proclaimed king by them in their madness, and he rated himself worthy of this beyond anyone else. After burning the royal palace in Jericho, he plundered and carried off the things that had been seized there. He also set fire to many other royal residences in many parts of the country and utterly destroyed them after permitting his fellow-rebels to take as booty whatever had been left in them. And he would have done something still more serious if attention had not quickly been turned to him. For Gratus, the officer of the royal troops, joined the Romans and with what forces he had went to meet Simon. A long and heavy battle was fought between them, and most of the Peraeans, who were disorganized and fighting with more recklessness than science, were destroyed. As for Simon, he tried to save himself by fleeing through a ravine, but Gratus intercepted him and cut off his head. The royal palace at Ammatha on the river Jordan was also burnt down by some rebels, who resembled those under Simon. Such was the great madness that settled upon the nation because they had no king of their own to restrain the populace by his pre-eminence, and because the foreigners who came among them to suppress the rebellion were themselves a cause of provocation through their arrogance and their greed.

Athronges (c. 4-2? BCE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 17.278-284. (Removable.)

Then there was a certain Athronges, a man distinguished neither for the position of his ancestors nor by the excellence of his character, nor for any abundance of means but merely a shepherd completely unknown to everybody although he was remarkable for his great stature and feats of strength. This man had the temerity to aspire to the kingship, thinking that if he obtained it he would enjoy freedom to act more outrageously; as for meeting death, he did not attach much importance to the loss of his life under such circumstances. He also had four brothers, and they too were tall men and confident of being very successful through their feats of strength, and he believed them to be a strong point in his bid for the kingdom. Each of them commanded an armed band, for a large number of people had gathered round them. Though they were commanders, they acted under his orders whenever they went on raids and fought by themselves. Athronges himself put on the diadem and held a council to discuss what things were to be done, but everything depended upon his own decision. This man kept his power for a long while, for he had the title of king and nothing to prevent him from doing as he wished. He and his brothers also applied themselves vigorously to slaughtering the Romans and the king’s men, toward both of whom they acted with a similar hatred, toward the latter because of the arrogance that they had shown during the reign of Herod, and toward the Romans because of the injuries that they were held to have inflicted at the present time. But as time went on they became more and more savage (toward all) alike. And there was no escape for any in any way, for sometimes the rebels killed in hope of gain and at other times from the habit of killing. On one occasion near Emmaus they even attacked a company of Romans, who were bringing grain and weapons to their army. Surrounding the centurion Arms, who commanded the detachment, and forty of the bravest of his foot-soldiers, they shot them down. The rest were terrified at their fate but with the protection given them by Gratus and the royal troops that were with him they made their escape, leaving their dead behind. This kind of warfare they kept up for a long time and caused the Romans no little trouble while also inflicting much damage on their own nation. But the brothers were eventually subdued, one of them in an engagement with Gratus, the other in one with Ptolemy. And when Archelaus captured the eldest, the last brother, grieving at the other’s fate and seeing that he could no longer find a way to save himself now that he was all alone and utterly exhausted, stripped of his force, surrendered to Archelaus on receiving a pledge sworn by his faith in God (that he would not be harmed). But this happened later.

The main narrative resumes at Ant 17.285

. . . . And so Judaea was filled with brigandage. Anyone might make himself king as the head of a band of rebels whom he fell in with, and then would press on to the destruction of the community, causing trouble to few Romans and then only to a small degree but bringing the greatest slaughter upon their own people.

That’s the group of three “digressions” (or rather illustrations of the theme in the main narrative, if one wanted to be exact about the evidence we are discussing.)

Tholomaus (early 40s CE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 20.5.

Fadus, on being informed of this, was greatly incensed that the Peraeans, granted that they thought themselves wronged by the Philadelphians, had not waited for him to give judgement but had instead resorted to arms. He therefore seized three of their leaders, who were in fact responsible for the revolt and ordered them to be held prisoner. Next he put one of them, named Annibas, to death, and imposed exile on the other two, Amaramus and Eleazar. . . .

20.5 Not long afterwards Tholomaeus the arch-brigand, who had inflicted very severe mischief upon Idumaea and upon the Arabs, was brought before him in chains and put to death.

. . . . From then on the whole of Judaea was purged of robber-bands, thanks to the prudent concern displayed by Fadus.

Theudas (c. 45 CE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 20.97-98.

Monobazus sent her bones and those of his brother to Jerusalem with instructions that they should be buried in the three pyramids that his mother had erected at a distance of three furlongs from the city of Jerusalem. As for the acts of King Monobazus during his lifetime, I shall narrate them later. . . .

During the period when Fadus was procurator of Judaea, a certain impostor named Theudas persuaded the majority of the masses to take up their possessions and to follow him to the Jordan River. He stated that he was a prophet and that at his command the river would be parted and would provide them an easy passage. With this talk he deceived many. Fadus, however, did not permit them to reap the fruit of their folly, but sent against them a squadron of cavalry. These fell upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them and took many prisoners. Theudas himself was captured, whereupon they cut off his head and brought it to Jerusalem. These, then, are the events that befell the Jews during the time that Cuspius Fadus was procurator.

. . . . The successor of Fadus was Tiberius Alexander, the son of that Alexander who had been alabarch in Alexandria and who surpassed all his fellow citizens both in ancestry and in wealth.

Eleazar ben Dinai (30s-50s CE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 20.161.

In Judaea matters were constantly going from bad to worse. For the country was again infested with bands of brigands and impostors who deceived the mob. Not a day passed, however, but that Felix captured and put to death many of these impostors and brigands.. . . .

He also, by a ruse, took alive Eleazar the son of Dinaeus, who had organized the company of brigands ; for by offering a pledge that he would suffer no harm, Felix induced him to appear before him. Felix then imprisoned him and dispatched him to Rome.

. . . . Felix also bore a grudge against Jonathan the high priest because of his frequent admonition to improve the administration of the affairs of Judaea.

The Egyptian prophet (c. 56 CE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 20.169-172 [corr. from 171].

With such pollution did the deeds of the brigands infect the city. Moreover, impostors and deceivers called upon the mob to follow them into the desert. For they said that they would show them unmistakable marvels and signs that would be wrought in harmony with God’s design. Many were, in fact, persuaded and paid the penalty of their folly; for they were brought before Felix and he punished them. . . .

At this time there came to Jerusalem from Egypt a man who declared that he was a prophet and advised the masses of the common people to go out with him to the mountain called the Mount of Olives, which lies opposite the city at a distance of five furlongs. For he asserted that he wished to demonstrate from there that at his command Jerusalem’s walls would fall down, through which he promised to provide them an entrance into the city. When Felix heard of this he ordered his soldiers to take up their arms. Setting out from Jerusalem with a large force of cavalry and infantry, he fell upon the Egyptian and his followers, slaying four hundred of them and taking two hundred prisoners. The Egyptian himself escaped from the battle and disappeared. And now the brigands once more incited the populace to war with Rome, telling them not to obey them. They also fired and pillaged the villages of those who refused to comply.

. . . There arose also a quarrel between the Jewish and Syrian inhabitants of Caesarea on the subject of equal civic rights.

An anonymous prophet (59 CE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 20.188.

For, as we said previously,” they would mingle at the festivals with the crowd of those who streamed into the city from all directions to worship, and thus easily assassinated any that they pleased. They would also frequently appear with arms in the villages of their foes and would plunder and set them on fire. . . .

Festus also sent a force of cavalry and infantry against the dupes of a certain impostor who had promised them salvation and rest from troubles, if they chose to follow him into the wilderness. The force which Festus dispatched destroyed both the deceiver himself and those who had followed him.

. . . About this time King Agrippa built a chamber of unusual size in his palace at Jerusalem adjoining the colonnade.

Eleazar, an exorcist ~ Jewish Antiquities 8.46-49.

And God granted him [Solomon] knowledge of the art used against demons for the benefit and healing of men. He also composed incantations by which illnesses are relieved, and left behind forms of exorcisms with which those possessed by demons drive them out, never to return. . . .

And this kind of cure is of very great power among us to this day, for I have seen a certain Eleazar, a countryman of mine, in the presence of Vespasian, his sons, tribunes and a number of other soldiers, free men possessed by demons, and this was the manner of the cure : he put to the nose of the possessed man a ring which had under its seal one of the roots prescribed by Solomon, and then, as the man smelled it, drew out the demon through his nostrils, and, when the man at once fell down, adjured the demon never to come back into him, speaking Solomon’s name and reciting the incantations which he had composed. Then, wishing to convince the bystanders and prove to them that he had this power, Eleazar placed a cup or foot- basin full of water a little way off and commanded the demon, as it went out of the man, to overturn it and make known to the spectators that he had left the man. And when this was done, the understanding and wisdom of Solomon were clearly revealed, on account of which we have been induced to speak of these things, in order that all men may know the greatness of his nature and how God favoured him, and that no one under the sun may be ignorant of the king’s surpassing virtue of every kind.

. . . Now when Eiromos, the king of the Tyrians, heard that Solomon had succeeded to his father’s kingdom, he was overjoyed, for he was a friend of David, and sent him greetings and congratulations on his present good fortune.

These are but a smattering of the digressions in Josephus but I would be interested to know if any of them break up a narrative sentence by sentence tight logical sequence as does the John the Baptist passage. To my mind none of the above instances break a “this…that” or an “A so B” type of naturally proximate passage.

That’s enough for one post. More to come.

Kirby, Peter. “The Authenticity of John the Baptist in Josephus.” Peter Kirby: Just Another WordPress Site, 21 May 2015, https://peterkirby.com/john-the-baptist-authentic.html.

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


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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

(1) The Textual Witness Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facts and Opinions in History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Updates – Late gospels and Josephus’s guilt-inspired prophecy

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by Neil Godfrey

I have finally added two more chapters to the Bruno Bauer Gospel criticism and history page — check the right-hand column under the Pages heading.

Two points of particular interest to me in those new chapters:

1. Bauer argues for the Gospels of Luke and Matthew being second-century works, post-dating Justin Martyr. He does so for much the same reasons I have posted here: although Justin knows some details that appear in both of those gospels, there are reasons to think he is using some other source that the authors of Luke and Matthew also used. What might that source have been? Justin knew it as the Memoirs of the Apostles. Bauer does think that much of the nativity narrative that we read in Matthew’s gospel was contained in those Memoirs. My own reading of Justin is that his Memoirs of the Apostles further included references to Damascus in his nativity scene while our author of the Gospel of Matthew omitted those. Bauer points out the inconsistencies in our gospel accounts, especially in Luke, and argues that the original gospel from which our canonical Luke is built up originally began at 3:1 — “In the fifteenth year of Tiberius….”. Quite so.

2. The other point of special interest is Bauer’s discussion of a supposedly widespread belief in the Near East in a prophecy that a king would arise from there to rule the world. The Roman historian Suetonius wrote about this in connection with the Jewish War of 66-70 CE. In Bauer’s view, Suetonius learned of this piece of information from the historian Tacitus who derived it from Josephus. And where did Josephus get the idea from? His guilt: he was being criticized for his poor job of defending his people against the Romans and knew he was to blame; to cover his guilt and make a desperate attempt to survive he decided to go over to the Roman side and in his role as a priest knowledgable in the sacred texts to declare that Vespasian and Titus had been prophesied to rule the world. The passage he most likely was thinking of was Daniel 9:26 — the people of a coming prince would destroy the city and the sanctuary.


Finding Jesus in (or through) Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

No, this post is not about the Testimonium Flavianum, that disputed passage about the “crucified-under-Pilate-Jesus”. It is about other figures in the works of Josephus that various authors have proposed are the original persons from whom the Christian myth was derived. Possibly the most well-known one that comes to mind is Jesus ben Ananias, the “mad man” who cried Cassandra warnings of doom on the city of Jerusalem before being hit with a stone catapulted by the Romans. Others have embraced the possibility that an earlier person, Jesus ben Saphat, was the “original Jesus”. His scene was in the Galilee area where he castigated wayward rivals by appealing to the Law of Moses and attracting “low-class” followers like “seamen” before making a fateful journey to Jerusalem. Another view sees Josephus’s account of “the Egyptian” as the true original. He gathered followers at the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem before meeting his demise. Others have even argued for the Roman military commander, Titus, as the template for details in the gospel narratives. One such view interprets Jesus’ call to his disciples to “fish for men” as an ironic twist on the moment when Romans butchered rebels who had fled into the lake of Galilee.

I wonder if the ability to identify different persons acting out scenarios that remind us of this or that in the gospels is because the first evangelist, in seeking a way to frame the first story about a life of Jesus, drew inspiration from, among other sources, what he had read in works by Josephus.

Some readers will feel uncomfortable with such an idea because it would mean the first gospel was not composed until the last few years of the first century at the earliest. Might not the author have been drawing on his memory of persons and events quite independently of any reading of Josephus, and if so, have even written the gospel before Josephus wrote Antiquities? Different readers will come to different conclusions on the likelihood of that explanation.

Let’s have a closer look at some of these purported precursors of the gospel Jesus.

Jesus son of Ananias

The scholar and churchman Theodore Weeden is associated with many parallels between Jesus ben Ananias and the gospel Jesus. I have set out his 23 points of parallel items on a separate webpage:  http://vridar.info/xorigins/josephus/2jesus.htm This Jesus made a nuisance of himself by crying “Woe Woe to Jerusalem”, its people and its Temple but was dismissed as a harmless madman by a Roman authority before meeting his fate. You can read the other details set out in two columns on the linked page. Some of the more significant incidents in common include the presence of Jesus ben Ananias in the Temple prior to his death, his quotation of Jeremiah, his silence before his Roman interrogator, his subsequent flogging and loud cry at his death.

I find it hard to imagine this particular figure having any historical existence at all. He appears amidst a list of divinely sent signs that Josephus says were harbingers of the city’s destruction. He looks very much like a stock figure of doom, of a Cassandra figure whom people are ordained to ignore and mock but only to their own peril. Hence I have doubts about the view, that some have expressed, that the evangelist responsible for the Gospel of Mark was drawing on memory of a real figure. If Josephus was the source of the figure then yes, the first gospel was indeed written later than commonly said.

The parallels are too many and specific to be discounted as coincidence. I can imagine our evangelist taking the model of ben Ananias — his assumed madness, his prophetic declaration of doom, his silence at his trial, his being flogged — and relating some of those sorts of details to what he was imagining about Jesus from the Scriptures: rejection by his own family, as Isaiah’s Suffering Servant being silent before his accusers, and so forth. The Jewish Scriptures presented him with a theme, a motif, but a relevant narrative application inspired by Josephus, modified for his new setting, of course, assisted with fleshing out a narrative context for those themes.

Jesus son of Saphat / Sapphias

Frans J. Vermeiren in A Chronological Revision of the Origins of Christianity argues that beneath the peaceful gospel Jesus lies a darker, more violent figure: think of his saying about “not coming to bring peace but a sword”, his assault on the temple, the fleeing herdsmen from the scene where Jesus confronted “Legion”, and so forth. From this perspective, Vermeiren sees the various references to the rebel military leader Jesus ben Saphat in Josephus’s writings as significant. This Jesus was active in Galilee. His followers were the lower class, including sailors.

Even though this Jesus was certainly a historical figure might we not imagine a similar influence as with Jesus ben Ananias at work on the creative mind of the gospel author? The idea of Galilee as a setting may have already been floated through a prophecy in Isaiah 9 (though it is not until Matthew that we find an explicit appeal to this passage as the source for the narrative setting); if so, then one can imagine his ears pricking up when he hears about another Jesus who gathered followers in Galilee. When he learned from Josephus that this same Jesus appealed to the Law of Moses when castigating his countrymen then surely he, the author, must have turned over such a figure and event in his mind. The gospel Jesus was to be the origin of the new “philosophy” or what became Christianity, so the idea of twelve disciples surely came to him from his reading of the twelve sons of Israel who became the founding fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. But did the idea of making the first of those disciples of the new Jesus’ “fishermen” derive from the Josephan rebel’s followers including many “sailors”? Is that why we have come to read of Jesus walking along the shore to find and call his first disciples?

There were numerous literary precursors for a travel narrative available to our author but one can imagine him reading of Jesus’s flight from Galilee, probably to Jerusalem, as having some creative influence as well.

The Egyptian

We have discussed Lena Einhorn’s Shift in Time thesis in other posts. In one of those posts, we focused on Josephus’s account of a false prophet, known to be a magician, and an Egyptian, who called his followers to the Mount of Olives. From there, he promised them, they would see the walls of Jerusalem collapse as they had done for Joshua (=Jesus).

Now the evangelist had the model of the OT messianic figure, David, ascending the Mount of Olives in deep grief, fearing for his life, pursued by his enemies (2 Samuel 15). Yes, the biblical models for a suffering messiah were there, but how to fit these models into a new narrative for the one to become the “mother of all Messiahs”? I can imagine this author thinking about that more recent calamity befalling a prophet on the Mount of Olives. Yes, that would be an idea: let his Jesus who has travelled from Galilee pronounce destruction on the city of Jerusalem and on the eve of his fate he also, at that moment, walks up the Mount of Olives with his disciples.

Einhorn further explores the possible significance of Josephus describing a Theudas, active in the Jordan River region and who was beheaded, prior to the Egyptian episode. Again, it is not hard to imagine one looking for a new narrative to associate some of this detail with a sub-plot of the precursor of his new Jesus.


I have not covered in depth any of the cases that have been made for the Josephan figures pointing to “the real Jesus” behind the Jesus of the gospels. I confess I have found each of the above hypotheses that attempts to establish its respective figure as the original Jesus lacking when it comes to explaining how the details of the story changed into what we read in the gospels today. If, however, we begin with our first evangelist filled with biblical interpretations and motifs (silence before accusers, ascending the Mount of Olives, calling followers) is it not easier to conceptualize the relevance of the Josephan passages for helping him flesh out those isolated ideas into a coherent narrative?



John the Baptist in Josephus — What was his baptism?

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by Neil Godfrey

I conclude* continue here my posts presenting Rivka Nir’s case for the John the Baptist passage in the Antiquities of Josephus being a Christian interpolation. All of these posts are archived at Nir: First Christian Believer. (* I had expected to conclude the series with this post but as usual, checking sources and being sure I get the argument correct takes more time than I usually anticipate). All bolded highlighting in the quotations is my own; italics are original.

Jewish or Christian Baptism? — What did John’s Baptism Look Like?

Nir identifies five defining characteristics of the baptism of John that we read about in Antiquities.

Here is the relevant section from Antiquities 18.116-118 (18.5.2)

John who was called Baptist . . . who was a good man and one who commanded the Jews to practise virtue and act with justice (δικαιοσύνῃ) toward one another and with piety toward God, and [so] to gather together by baptism. For [John’s view was that] in this way baptism certainly would appear acceptable to him [i.e. God] if [they] used [it] not for seeking pardon of certain sins but for purification of the body, because the soul had already been cleansed before by righteousness (δικαιοσύνῃ). . . And . . . others gathered together [around John] (for they were also excited to the utmost by listening to [his] teachings) . . . 

(Translation by Robert Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, p. 32)

Character 1: Christian terminology

Nir submits that the terms used in the Josephan passage “derive from the lexicon of Christian theology.” That certainly appears to be true with respect to the epithet assigned to John, “the Baptist” (βαπτιστής). Though Josephus uses other forms of the word for immersion, dipping or washing elsewhere, “the Baptist” — βαπτιστής — is found nowhere else in Josephus and is specific to the New Testament as an epithet for John.


for someone who did not know Jewish tradition or Christian preaching, the rather deliberate statement that this was ‘the wetted’ or perhaps ‘the greased’ would sound most peculiar… Since Josephus is usually sensitive to his audience and pauses to explain unfamiliar terms or aspects of Jewish life, it is very strange that he would make the bald assertion, without explanation, that Jesus was ‘Christ’ (Ant. 20.200). That formulation, “the one called Christ,” makes much better sense because it sounds like a nick-name. . . . [I]t would make sense for Josephus to say, “This man had the nickname Christos,” and he could do so without further explanation. (Josephus and the New Testament, 166)

Nir further posits that we should expect Josephus to explain the meaning of the epithet if he did write it, just as, for example, Steve Mason argues that Josephus would be expected to explain the epithet “Christ” to non-Jewish audiences if he did use it of Jesus. Against this, in my view, and as Nir herself notes in a footnote, Mason further suggests that Josephus would not be expected to explain the meaning if the epithet was introduced as a nickname — e.g. Jesus who was called Christ, John who was called the Baptist.

The problem highlighted by Nir is as follows:

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

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

50. Rivka Nir cites Graetz, Abrahams, Mason and Webb. I have expanded on the difficulties Abrahams raises for Nir’s argument below.

Abrahams argues that the passage overall is genuine but acknowledges the possibility that the epithet “the Baptist” is interpolated:

The terminology of Josephus, I would urge, makes it quite unlikely that the passage is an interpolation. For, it will be noted (a) Josephus does not use βάπησμα which is the usual N.T. form; (6) he does use the form βάπτισις which is unknown to the N.T.; (c) he uses βαπτισμός in a way quite unlike the use of the word when it does occur in Mark (vii. 4) or even in Hebrews (ix. 10). It is in fact Josephus alone who applies the word βαπτισμός to John’s baptism. Except then that Josephus used the epithet βαπτιστής (which may be interpolated) his terminology is quite independent of N.T. usage. (Studies in Pharisaism, p. 33)

Others reply that Josephus does explain the term, if indirectly:

In his first editions Graetz accepted Josephus’ account of John as authentic. But in his later editions of the Geschichte der Juden he strongly contends that the passage is spurious. He urges that Josephus would not have described John as the “Baptist” (τοῦ ἐπικαλουμένου βαπτιστοῦ) without further explanation. Graetz does not see that it is possible to regard these three words as an interpolation in a passage otherwise authentic. But it is not necessary to make this supposition. For it is quite in Josephus’ manner to use designations for which he offers no explanation (cf. e.g. the term “Essene”). And the meaning of “Baptist” is fully explained in the following sentence, Josephus using the nouns βάπτισις and βαπτισμος to describe John’s activity.

(Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism, 33 — Rivka Nir cites Abrahams but the fuller quotations are mine.)

Abrahams (in both the paragraph above and in the side box) sounds more damning than his argument actually is. Yes, he is correct Josephus uses baptisis (βάπτισις) “which is unknown in the New Testament” and baptismos (βαπτισμός) “in a way quite unlike the use of the word when it does appear in Mark(vii. 4) or … Hebrews (ix. 10).” But what Nir points out is that those words are part of the “lexicon of Christian theology” as witnessed by Athanasius Alexandrinus, Origen and Chrysostom. They are not the words Josephus normally uses (λούεσθαι or άπολούεσθαι — louesthai or apolouesthai) when describing Jewish immersions. Those early fathers testify to the use of those terms in relation to John’s baptism as well as Christian baptism more generally.

Characteristic 2: a collective baptism into an elect group

The key section here is Continue reading “John the Baptist in Josephus — What was his baptism?”


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

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.