Cahiers du Cercle Ernest Renan, no. 11 (1956)
Edited and translated from the French by R. Salm (April, 2012)
Note: Bracketed editorial additions are in green and signed “R.S.”
Followed by a concluding note
A little further on in the same book, Josephus recounts the victory of Aretas (Ant. XVIII.5.1). After giving certain details, he writes (§2): “Some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment for what he did against John…” Now, until this passage John had not yet been mentioned by Josephus who, we recall, had also not named the Samaritain messiah (for whom he certainly had no admiration).
Immediate thereafter, §2 continues with the account of the just and pious man who baptized peacefully and was beloved by the multitude. The paragraph ends virtually the same way it began: “So the Jews believed that the destruction of this army…” This paragraph is the only one in which the surviving Greek versions of Josephus mention John the Baptist by name.19
On the face of it, we here have an interpolated paragraph bracketed by a repetition.20 A Christian evidently wanted to insert an account of the forerunner of Jesus together with praise in his regard. He did so in order to combat the preceding passage (regarding the unnamed Samaritan upstart, XVIII.4.1) which he felt included perfidious material regarding John.21 The interpolator needed to show that John was not an agitator but a peaceful and good prophet. In this way Josephus—a historian who viewed the Samaritans as troublemakers—is made to contradict himself in his own writing.
Let us for a moment consider a passage some pages later. This is Josephus’ paragraph concerning Theudas, the charlatan ostensibly captured and decapitated ten years later under Cuspius Fadus (44-46 CE):
During the period when Fadus was procurator of Judea, 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. (Ant. XX.5.1)
The paragraph relates neither to the end of the preceding discussion [which deals with Izates, king of Adiabene]—understandable enough, for we have a new chapter—nor, however, to the discussion which follows. It gives the impression of being ‘suspended in air’ and is intrusive at the beginning of a new discussion. Chapter 5 would normally begin with the second paragraph: “The successor of Fadus was Tiberius Alexander, the son of…” Also, the first paragraph hardly sums up “the events that befell the Jews during the time that Cuspius Fadus was procurator,” as Josephus claims at the end of the above citation.
At the same time, the above passage would perfectly complete Book XIX which in fact terminates by relating that Cuspius Fadus became procurator of Judea with the mission of chastising the inhabitants of Sebaste and Caesarea and removing troops in order to reduce friction (9.2). As it happened, Fadus was mollified and the troops “obtained leave to remain in Judea. These men, in the period that followed, proved to be a source of the greatest disasters to the Jews by sowing the seed of war in Florus’ time. For this reason Vespasian, on coming to the throne, as we shall shortly relate,22 deported them from the province.” However, the promised continuation is missing. Instead, Book XX immediately begins with four paragraphs which have nothing to do with our subject, and the fifth paragraph begins in the way we have described above.
It appears that a copyist supplemented Josephus with material he thought lacking by inserting a preliminary paragraph. He was under the mistaken impression that Theudas lived at the time of Fadus. The paragraph he added neither adds to nor takes away from what we already know.
We note a few salient points:
– Origen thought Dositheus a messiah-pretender, a “Son of God” contemporary with Jesus;23
– Josephus writes of a nameless prophet (Ant XVIII.4.1. Samuel Krauss considered him to be Dositheus, the Samaritan Taheb) killed by Pilate in the year 35 CE.;
– John the Baptist is mentioned in the gospels and allegedly by Josephus (Ant XVIII.5.2)19;
– Theudas appears in Acts 5:36.
To these four points we may add a fifth:
– Under the name “Jesus” in his Lexicon, Philip of Side reports that the synagogue of Tiberias preserved a certain Book of Theudas about a Samaritan Christ. The book relates that Christ was elected High Priest by the Jews.24 Now, there exists a tradition (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. III.31.3) according to which “John, who rested on the bosom of our Lord, was a priest who bore the sacerdotal plate [petalon pephorekws], martyr and teacher…”25 It is not surprising that the same legend [regarding the High Priesthood] attaches to Theudas as also to John-Dositheus, given that these are one and the same “Christ.”
This complex of facts permits one to advance the hypothesis that John the Baptist was the principal Christian messiah.26 No trace of Jesus’ death exists in any historical account, and his alleged death cannot be dated with precision. On the other hand, we possess evidence in the Acts of the Apostles and in the works of Josephus that a messiah John the Samaritan was executed in the year 35 CE under the name Theudas.
One could, of course, propose the novel theory that two messiahs were killed under Pontius Pilate. However, if that were the case, it would be astonishing that Josephus cites only one of them (John-Theudas) with precise and quite believable details. At the same time, the evangelists barely mention the death of John yet offer extensive passion accounts of Jesus which are rife with myth.
It was the death of John—not of Jesus—that precipitated the recall of Pilate and that provoked repercussions in the Roman world. That recall can be comprehended as one instigated by the Samaritans who were Rome’s traditional friends. John the Baptist would have been executed about the year 35 CE, perhaps at Passover. It would be understandable, then, that the defeat of Herod Antipas by Aretas in 36 might have been interpreted as divine punishment inflicted upon Herod for the recent death of the prophet.27
In a prior publication 28 we have suggested that John and Jesus were one and the same person, that the mythical biography of Jesus relies upon the historical existence of John, and that John was the Christ. If this is correct, we can now bring other relevant dates to light:
The Pharisees say to Christ shortly before his death: “You are not yet fifty years old” (Jn 8:57). His birth would accordingly have taken place in 15 BCE. Irenaeus (AH 2.22.5) also reports that the ministry of Christ lasted until about his fiftieth year. Another confirmation comes from Jn 2:20-21, which metaphorically tells us that Jesus was forty-six years old—this roughly four years before the Passion.
If he were born in 15 BCE,, John would have been twenty-one years old at the time of Judas the Galilean’s uprising and could have participated in it. We know that Gamaliel facilitated a rapprochement between the two men.29 Furthermore, Slavonic Josephus has John appearing before the ethnarch Archelaus, deposed in 6 CE.30 Given these indications, was not John involved in the uprising?
According to this scenario, the activity of John would have lasted three decades (considerably abridged in the canonical gospels). Over this extended time his religious beliefs would certainly have experienced some evolution for, in the year 28-29 CE (“the fifteenth years of Tiberias Caesar,” Lk 3:1) “the word of God came to John” (v. 2) and he subsequently baptized throughout the region of the Jordan.
In this article Georges Ory argues that Jesus “really” is John the Baptist, “really” is Theudas, “really” is Dositheus, and that the dates traditionally associated with all these pseudo-figures are suspect. He marshalls evidence on each point, drawn equally from the ancient sources and from contemporary scholarship. Even if Ory is correct on only a few of his contentions, it is clear that the entire history of early Christianity must be rewritten. Radical scholarship over the last century, including the work of Ory and of numerous other mythicists, shows that the truth—wherever it may lie—certainly does not lie in any account of Christian origins which can be considered even remotely “traditional.”
Ory begins this article “Samaria, the Messiah’s Homeland” by showing that “Jesus” (savior, messiah, son of Joseph) was essentially a Samaritan conception and that the Jesus story ultimately has a Simonian basis. The scene at the well (Jn 4) was originally between Simon Magus and Helena. Ory maintains that Jesus taught “the unknown god of gnosticism.” This insightful scholar does not shy away from the most radical theses, postulating that Jesus—a fictive character in a fictive setting—ironically enables his own betrayal when he gives Judas the piece of bread (Jn 13:26). For Ory, the ur-Gospel of Matthew associated Peter with Satan (rather than Judas with Satan).
Ory then offers a summary of Samaritan history and reviews the enmity between the two peoples, noting that both Jews and Samaritans claim to be the true “Israel.” He then argues several revolutionary theses (Part Four): (1) John the Baptist = the obscure Samaritan prophet Dositheus; (2) Dositheus was the Samaritan “Jesus” = Joshua come back to life; and (3) Dositheus = Theudas. Name-play is involved in the equivalences John = Dositheus = Theudas. The latter, Ory maintains, was the Samaritan prophet whose followers Pontius Pilate destroyed at the foot of Mt. Gerizim about 35 CE (mistakenly dated by a redactor of Josephus to the time of Fadus). If Ory is even partially correct, the implications of these various arguments for early Christian studies are nothing less than stunning.
In the final two sections of the article Ory expands upon the equivalence Theudas = John the Baptist and ties together various strands of evidence. He does so by postulating that the prophet in question was born ca. 15 BCE. This would render him “about fifty years old” at the time of his death in the mid-30s, as the Fourth Gospel implies and as Irenaeus believed. Such a birth date would make it possible for “Jesus” to appear before Archelaus (who was banished to Gaul in 6 CE), to participate in the uprising of Judas the Galilean, to preach (for several decades), and then to be condemned under Pilate in the mid-30s… Ory notes the “slip” in Acts 5:36-37 where Theudas is dated before Judas the Galilean and compares evidence from Josephus, noting that the slavonic version of The Jewish Wars also dates John the Baptist pre-6 CE.
In his writing Ory shows that he has mastered his source material, is widely read, is able to fearlessly put aside preconceptions, and has the ability to patiently employ reason in sorting out complex issues. As his works-list shows, he wrote extensively on early Christianity over a period of several decades.
Ory was hardly the first to appreciate that the New Testament texts are full of contradictions, improbabilities, and no small number of impossibilities. The writings of Josephus, too, betray not only Christian tampering but internal inconsistencies, e.g., “The accounts of Herod’s trial in The Jewish War and Antiquities contain glaring contradictions” (IDB 2:587). The chronological error of Luke regarding the census of Quirinus is well known. Of course, such errors pale before historical monstrosities as Matthew’s slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. In sum, Ory’s allegations of error, invention, and/or deliberate tampering are entirely consistent with the nature of the Christian source material.
Ory does not offer the grand synthesis. Rather, in his writings he argues inductively from many discrete anomalies long overlooked in the record. According to the rule of dissimilarity such anomalies cannot be dismissed out of hand but merit serious consideration by any researcher. Moreover, when anomalies agree with one another (as with the above pre-6 CE datings) then the investigator must sit up and wonder which is anomalous—the pattern of facts which does not fit the received story, or the received story itself.—René Salm
19. Slavonic Josephus also mentions John the Baptist at War II.9.1 (see below).—R.S.
20. This is also the conclusion of Frank Zindler, The Jesus the Jews Never Knew (2003):95-99.—R.S.
21. Indeed, the perfidy in XVIII.4.1 is clear. Josephus writes that “The man who excited [the Samaritans to tumults] was one who thought lying a thing of little consequence…”—R.S.
22. Thus Josephus promises to return to this subject. The passage is from the Feldman translation (Loeb Classical Library). Interestingly, the popular Whiston version mistranslates at this point and removes Josephus’ promise entirely: “…got leave to abide in Judea still; and these were the very men that became the source of very great calamities to the Jews in after-times, and sowed the seeds of that war…” (emphasis added)—R.S.
23. Cf. Origen, Commentary on John XIII.27; Homilies 25.4-5.—R.S.
24. Unfortunately Ory offers no references for these provocative resources: the “Lexicon” of Philip of Side (ca. 400 CE) and the tantalizing “Book of Theudas.” This French of this passage is given here: Philippe de Side rapporte dans son Lexique au nom de Jésus que la synagogue de Tibériade conservait un Livre de Theudas, Christ Samaritain, où il était dit que le Christ avait été élu Grand-Prêtre par les Juifs. The reader who can offer further information is kindly invited to contact me.—R.S.
25. Ory characterizes the petalos as follows: “lame d’or qui ornait la tiare du Souverain-Sacrificateur.” The “John” Eusebius is describing is not the Baptist but the Fourth Evangelist. Eusebius considers him to have been the Beloved Disciple. The (entirely unrecognized) possibility that John the Baptist may have had that distinction certainly raises new avenues of inquiry regarding the “Beloved Disciple” (BD). For example, J.H. Charlesworth devoted an entire book to the identity of the BD (1995) and reviews all the proposals. These include even Ananda (the Buddha’s disciple) to Judas Iscariot. It appears, however, that no one has yet proposed John the Baptist.—R.S.
26. L’ensemble de ces faits permet d’avancer l’hypothèse que Jean-Baptiste a été le principal messie chrétien.
27. Eusebius dates the crucifixion of Christ as the year 340 according to the Greeks, being year 789 of the Romans, that is, year 35 CE of our calendar. (Year one of our common era corresponds with Roman year 754.)—G.O.
28. Hypothese sur Jean le Baptiseur. Cahiers du Cercle Ernest Renan no. 10, 1956.
29. I am not certain upon what evidence Ory bases this assertion of a rapprochement between John and Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:33 ff?).—R.S.
30. Slavonic War II.7.2d. See Leeming & Leeming, Josephus’ Jewish War and its Slavonic Version, Brill 2003:248.—R.S.