The Authenticity of John the Baptist in Josephus
Arguments for inauthenticity
By his own admission, Kirby’s points are indecisive as regards the authenticity or inauthenticity of the John the Baptist passage in Josephus (Ant. 18.116-119; Whiston’s chapter 18.5.2). In this latter half of his article he argues mainly against Frank Zindler (The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, pp. 88–99), who raised a number of points against authenticity. Kirby also argues against Robert Price, citing rebuttals by Maurice Casey (d. 2014). This is revealing, for Casey believed “that the documents on Jesus of greatest historical value are the Gospel of Mark and the Pauline epistles.” Right. The Pauline epistles have next to nothing (or—some scholars have argued—nothing at all) to report regarding a historical personage, and the Gospel of Mark is—to put it mildly—an allegorical rewrite of Old Testament (Brodie) and Homeric (MacDonald) templates. That Casey clung to his outmoded views of Mark and Paul being reliable historical sources in the 21st century marks the late Professor Emeritus of New Testament Languages and Literature (Nottingham, U.K.) as decidedly old-school.
As noted in the preceding post, however, my interest is not to show whether the Josephan passage on John is authentic or an interpolation, but to highlight the change in perspective that must occur before any conclusion can be arrived at regarding Christian origins.
(9) The Epithet “the Baptist”
The explanation of the term is obvious. John was “called the Baptist” because he performed “baptism.” This connection is as obvious in the Greek as it is in the English today, which is why no Gentile today wonders about the meaning of the term “Baptist.” (It is particular to John and doesn’t really denote anything special in Judaism, in any case. It is quite unlike the term “Christ,” where the argument has real validity.)
I find this casual explanation astonishing—and dead wrong. “No Gentile today wonders about the meaning of the term “Baptist”? I challenge anyone—scholar or layperson—to explain in clear terms the meaning and origins of baptism. Like the term “Nazarene” (so beloved by the Markan evangelist), the origin and meaning of baptism rank among the great mysteries of the Christian religion.
Some scholars relate Christian baptism to Jewish ritual purification in mikvaoth. There is little doubt such immersion was practiced in Judaism around the turn of the era, including at Qumran. But Christianity downplays purification of the body, e.g.: “Now then, said the Lord, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness” (Lk 11:39; cf. Mk 7:4; Mt 23:26). If anything, these words are an argument against ritual water purification.
Normative Judaism does not know ritual purification as an initiation ritual, as a sacrament. However, both Christianity and the Dead Sea Scriptures know these meanings (below). To me, this signals a link between the community of the Scrolls and early Christianity.
Water, in the religious context, has been an enduring interest of mine. Religious immersion goes back to the dawn of civilization in Sumer. With the triumph of Christianity, however, the pregnant (read: proto-gnostic) meanings associated with water rituals were lost. There are many relevant posts on this website (key “water” into the search box above), but here I note in passing: (a) the water god Enki—the all-knowing Lord of Gnosis in Sumer and early Mesopotamia; (b) the presence of a basin of sacred water/wisdom in early temples (including in the mythical First Temple of Solomon); (c) the sacred lake in Syrian religion—to mention only a few aspects of sacred water in pre-Christian times.
Long before the turn of the era, dipping into water was a symbol for dipping into gnosis. The concept goes back to neolithic times, when our ancestors considered that water gives life to plants, animals, and humans, and that it also emerges mysteriously out of mountains (springs) and falls equally mysteriously from the sky (rain). Water can nurture or kill (cf. the Flood). When civilization arose in the late fourth millennium BCE, the watery depths were already regarded as the sacred dwelling place of the gods. [Incidentally, this view may have been universal.— Water worship has been documented at Stonehenge and at the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in Teotihuacan, Mexico.] This ancient symbolism carried over into Christianity but was deracinated and no longer understood—cf. the sacred fish (e.g. the bishop’s high hat); the sprinkling of holy water in churches today; and the sacrament of baptism.
To return to Kirby’s article, the interpolation into Josephus under discussion conforms surprisingly well with ritual immersion in the Dead Sea Sect:
Anyone who refuses to enter the society of God, preferring to continue in his willful heart, shall not be initiated into the society [Yahad] of His truth, inasmuch as his soul has rejected the disciplines foundational to knowledge, the laws of righteousness. He lacks the strength to repent. He is not to be reckoned among the upright. His knowledge, and wealth are not to enter the society of the Yahad. Surely, he plows in the muck of wickedness, so defiling stains would mar his repentance. Yet he cannot be justified by what his willful heart declares lawful, preferring to gaze on darkness rather than the ways of light. With such an eye he cannot be reckoned faultless. Ceremonies of atonement cannot restore his innocence, neither cultic waters his purity. He cannot be sanctified by baptism in oceans and rivers, nor purified by mere ritual bathing. Unclean, unclean shall he be all the days that he rejects the laws of God, refusing to be disciplined in the Yahad of His society.
… Through an upright and humble attitude his sin may be covered, and by humbling himself before all God’s laws, his flesh can be made clean. Only thus can he receive the purifying waters and be purged by the cleansing flow…
[Community Rule, 1QS col 3, in Wise, Abegg, and Cook, The Dead Sea Scrolls (1996) p. 129; emphases added.]
I have bolded the above emphases on “knowledge… darkness… ways of light”—all gnostic locutions. The essence of the passage is that the proselyte must first be purified before entering into baptism. Only such inner purification allowed entry into the society/Yahad. The same emphasis on prior purification is found in the John the Baptist passage in Josephus:
[H]e was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing 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 right behavior.
Synoptically comparing the foregoing citations, the suspicion arises that the ‘Christian’ who interpolated the John the Baptist passage into Josephus may have been an ex-member of the Dead Sea Sect or, at least, may have been familiar with the tenets of the Yahad. If this suspicion is correct, then new possibilities suddenly emerge—cf. the Johannine verse reporting that two disciples (John and Andrew) passed from John the Baptist to Jesus (Jn 1:37). Is this a veiled link, in the Fourth Gospel, pointing to early ties between Qumran and Christianity?
It’s time for a new paradigm
In sum, long revered Christian texts must be radically re-evaluated. I believe that scholarship has arrived at a watershed decade—the 2020s. The accumulated evidence against traditional views is now so great that the ancient, august edifice of Christianity must crumble, to endure vestigially among those hopelessly given over to fake news and wishful thinking. Unfortunately, the latter are numerous—Christianity will probably survive some centuries more, but it’s support among reasoning people is irrevocably on the decline.
Scholarship today is gravely divided. Who wants to be a New Testament professor in the poisoned crosscurrents that exist in non-confessional departments of religion? In the era of genome sequencing, quantum computing, and nanotechnology (all taught in a neighboring university building), who wants to defend the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the massacre of the innocents, and the historicity of a homeless prophet from a non-existent town in Galilee? Really? asks the incredulous student of his religious studies professor. Do you really believe that?
But the dam has yet to break. The issue is not When? but something far more important: Who will get the credit? (He he.) The dam will break when the academy—now being pulled away from orthodoxy kicking and screaming—is able to take credit for heroically bringing the world into a new age of reason. (Shrug.)
While Jesus mythicists are still routinely ignored by mainline journals and presses, courageous voices are arising from within the academy—witness, Fr. Thomas Brodie and Dennis R. MacDonald. But much work lies ahead. That work will require the ability to jettison cherished assumptions and to challenge still entrenched religious authority.
At the end of this year 2021, it is primarily mythicists from outside the academy who are showing the way, who are groping towards a new paradigm for Jesus studies. That new paradigm includes three foundational parameters:
(1) earliest Christianity existed without ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ until the mid-second century CE;
(2) the canonical gospels and Acts of the Apostles stem from the [mid-]second century CE, not from the first century (thus removing any possibility of contemporary witness to Jesus, and dramatically impacting the figure and chronology of ‘Paul’); and
(3) ‘Jesus’ in the first century CE denoted the saving agency of a divine, mobile, and emphatically spiritual entity, one that comes down from heaven and indwells the worthy human being (whom I identify as the ‘Nazarene’ and the one who has been ‘baptized’ into the new religion).
These points reveal that all early Christians were, in fact, Jesus mythicists. Jesus of Nazareth did not yet exist. For the first century Christians, Jesus did not come in flesh and blood—he ‘had no body.’ Today, scholars marginalize those early Christians as ‘docetists.’ The term is misleading and those early Christians were not marginal. They certainly did not view Jesus as an improbable phantom (< Gk. dokein, “to seem”) who wandered ghostlike about Palestine without a body—as the spiteful Church Fathers lampooned. For the first century Christians, Jesus was the divine spirit. We learn about them from the apocryphal literature, from the Nag Hammadi texts, and from doubters in the physical reality of Jesus such as the apostle Thomas.
The tradition disparages the apocryphal literature (most of which it succeeded in burning), the Nag Hammadi texts, and the apostle Thomas. The deceiving cabal that concocted the Church and amassed power and wealth has managed far beyond the wildest dreams of a Justin Martyr, a Eusebius of Caesarea, a Tertullian… After about 1,850 years, Christianity is now worldwide and deeply entrenched. Not bad.
But the clock is ticking.