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.


John the Baptist — Another Case for Forgery in Josephus (conclusion)

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by Neil Godfrey

All posts in this series are archived at Nir: First Christian Believer

Here is the final post discussing the introductory chapter of Rivka Nir’s The First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist where she sets out her case for the John the Baptist passage in the writings of Josephus being a forgery.

For readers with so little time, the TL;DR version:

  • The baptism of John that is described in Josephus’s Antiquities is shown to be significantly different from Jewish Pharisaic baptism (Pharisee baptism was for ritual cleansing of the body independently from any call for moral purity; the Josephan John’s baptism was for bodily purity but required moral purity as a precondition);
  • It is also significantly different from the baptism attributed to the Essenes (and the hermit Bannus) by Josephus — for the same type of reason it was different from the Pharisee baptism);
  • That baptism of John appears instead to be very like baptism we read about among Jewish sectarians as in the Qumran scrolls and the Fourth Sibylline Oracle (moral purity was a precondition for the bodily sanctification effected by baptism);
  • That same type of baptism we read about in the Dead Sea scrolls and Fourth Sibylline continues to appear among early Jewish Christian sects as witnessed in the Pseudo-Clementines (moral purity a precondition for bodily purification) — the early Christian baptism appears therefore to have emerged from the Jewish sectarians;
  • The Josephan passage is polemical, apparently attacking what we associate with the orthodox Christian Pauline baptism that was a ritual performed to effect the forgiveness of sins and new spiritual life. (The Pauline and gospel baptism — especially as in the Gospel of Matthew — has nothing to do with physical purity.)
  • Origen appears to have not known of the John the Baptist passage in Josephus but we first read of awareness of it in Eusebius. We can conclude that the passage was inserted by a member of one of the early Jewish-Christian sects late third or early fourth century.


To refresh your memory, here again is the Josephan passage with the description of his baptism highlighted:

But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, called the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead righteous lives and practice justice towards their fellows and piety toward God to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by righteousness. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation, and see his mistake. Though John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus. the stronghold that we have previously mentioned, and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod (Ant. 18.116-19).

Not a Jewish Pharisaic Baptism

Nir sets aside any possibility that the account of John’s baptism as quoted above could be a typical Jewish Pharisee baptism of the time. The Pharisaic baptism, she explains, was entirely for the purpose of cleansing the body from ritual impurities — from contact with a corpse, skin diseases, bodily discharges, and such. It had nothing to do with moral purity or righteous behaviour. To achieve forgiveness for spiritual sins one had the sacrificial cult of the Temple.

What about those passages in the Prophets that speak about washing away sins? One of many examples:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’ (Isaiah 1:16-20)

Some scholars have speculated that such passages were interpreted by some Jews of the day as the basis of a new baptismal ritual, one that requires repentance and spiritual purity before being immersed in water:

The similarity between the initial immersion of the Qumran community and John’s immersion probably stems from a common use of the book of Isaiah. Thus, the idea that one could be made clean in body only if one was pure in heart is probably to be derived from an interpretation of the book of Isaiah that was current among several groups in Second Temple Judaism. (Taylor, The Immerser, 88)

Such passages as these attest the early association between physical and moral purification, such as meets us in the Johannine baptism. And the ideas are close. Whoever invented the epigram “ Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” it is a fair summary of Pharisaic conceptions on the subject under discussion. (Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism, 41)

Entirely speculative and contrary to the extant evidence, replies Nir. Jewish Pharisaic baptism was for the purification of the body “from natural and unavoidable states of impurity, such as contact with a corpse”. It was not “conditioned on inner moral repentance or spiritual purification.” (p. 53) The passages in Isaiah, the Psalms, Ezekiel, Jeremiah speaking of being cleansed or washed from sins are figurative. (I would add that such passages, if interpreted as the basis of a baptism ritual, would be more likely to prompt a baptism that is contrary to the one described in Josephus’s Antiquities because those passages speak of “washing away sins”, being “cleansed from sin” — as if the washing itself performs the moral purification.)

Yes, Philo did compare physical impurity with moral impurity, but at the same time he recognized the place of sacrifices in moral cleansing.

What of the Essenes and that hermit mentioned by Josephus, Bannus?

Rivka Nir does not assume the Essenes are to be identified as the group responsible for the Qumran practices. Essenes as described by Josephus are kept separate from the group known through the Qumran scrolls.

In War 2.119-61, Josephus describes the immersions of the Essenes. They bathed in cold water (άπολούοντοα τό σώμα ψυχροΐς ϋδασιν) for ‘purification’ (εις άγνείαν), and would wash themselves before meals (129), following defecation (149), or contact with a Gentile or person of inferior status in the sect (150). About Bannus, an ascetic hermit who lived in the wilderness, Josephus recounts that he would wash himself frequently in cold water, by day and night, for purity’s sake (λουόμενον πρός άγνείαν, Life 2.11) (Nir, 55)

That is, baptism for both is

  • self-administered
  • daily
  • in cold water
  • for physical purification

and Josephus uses similar terms for both.

With the support of an article by Bruce Chilton Rivka Nir observes of the baptism found here:

In response to a view found in some quarters that the Essenes’ baptism replaced the sacrificial cult, Nir explains at some length with multiple citations why such a view is based on a misreading of the original script of Josephus.

It has nothing to do with prior repentance or moral and spiritual purification: its administration requires no preaching or urging; it is no collective mass baptism and does not constitute an initiation rite into some elect group. Furthermore, the Essene and Bannus immersions were not a substitute for the sacrificial cult.


It may not be an “orthodox” Jewish baptism of the era, but Rivka Nir does see an overlap between the Josephan account and what we read in the Qumran scrolls. The key text is the Community Rule (dated by orthography and paleography between 100 BCE and 50 CE).

A Jewish-Christian Baptism

Rivka Nir’s argument is that Jewish sectarian baptisms stressing moral purity as a condition for ritually cleansing the body by immersion existed side by side early Jewish-Christian sects in opposition to the Christian baptism known to us from the Pauline tradition.

We start with the evidence for Jewish sects having a baptism in parallel with what we read about John’s in Josephus.

From https://www.textmanuscripts.com/blog/entry/11_16_deadseascrolls

Qumran scrolls

In the Community Rule 1QS 2.26-3.12 we see the same type of baptism that Josephus depicts for John — ritual cleansing of immersion into water is effective if one is first repentant:

And anyone who declines to enter the covenant of God in order to walk in the stubbornness of his heart shall not enter the community of his truth … For it is by the spirit of the true counsel of God that are atoned the paths of man, all his iniquities, so that he can look at the light of life. And it is by the holy spirit of the community , in its truth, that he is cleansed of all his iniquities. And by the spirit of uprightness and of humility his sin is atoned. And by the compliance of his soul with all the laws of God his flesh is cleansed by being sprinkled with cleansing waters and being made holy with the waters of repentance. May he, then, steady his steps in order to walk with perfection on all lhe paths of God, as he has decreed concerning the appointed times of his assemblies and not turn aside, either right or left nor infringe even one of all his words. In this way he will be admitted by means of atonement pleasing to God, and for him it will be the covenant of an everlasting Community.

Also as with the Josephan baptism of John we see the effect at a community level.

At Qumran, as in John’s baptism, justice (righteousness) was the means to purification and expiation of sins . . . And like John’s baptism, the Qumran baptism appears to have been one of the conditions for admission to the congregation: and it was similarly a collective baptism and a substitute for the sacrificial cult. (Nir, 60)

Also the Fourth Sibylline 

Another Jewish group, one responsible for the Fourth Sibylline (dated to about 80 CE), takes the same position: Continue reading “John the Baptist — Another Case for Forgery in Josephus (conclusion)”


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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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Immediately before the JB passage (paragraph 115):

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

and immediately following (paragraph 120) the JB passage:

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

Nir’s comment:

On removal of the passage, paragraph 120 flows smoothly and uninterruptedly from paragraph 115 and the order of events and correct syntactical structure are retained: Tiberius commands and Vitellius acts. (Nir, p. 44)

Nir adds another point,

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

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

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

The bolded opening and closing words contain the same concepts:

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

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

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

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


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

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by Neil Godfrey

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

Nir informs us in The First Christian Believer,

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

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

Heinrich Graetz

This sentence translates as…

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

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


Samuel Krauss


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

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


Next is that passage I asked for help to translate.

Emil Schürer

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


John the Baptist: Another Case for Forgery in Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

But first, here is the passage:

But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, called the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead righteous lives and practice justice towards their fellows and piety toward God to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by righteousness. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation, and see his mistake. Though John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus. the stronghold that we have previously mentioned, and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod (Ant. 18.116-19).

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

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

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

Unlike the gospel authors, Josephus

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

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

Hence the accounts are viewed as complementary with their differences.

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

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

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

Reconciliation is found in the following:

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth reason: the JB passage is mentioned by Origen

Origen writes, ca 248 CE, in Against Celsus 1.47

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

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


John the Baptist Resources

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by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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