John the Baptist in Josephus—Pt. 1

A New Account of Christian Origins / pt. 1

A certain “Peter” recently commented on a post on this website where I make the claim that, at an early stage in Christian history, John = Jesus (lit. “Savior”). In his comment Peter poses several questions, including whether I maintain “that the Josephus story of John the Baptist is inauthentic, considering among other factors the time frame with Herod Antipas, contra the article by Peter Kirby?”

The passage in question is Ant. 18.116-119 (Whiston’s chapter 18.5.2). For now I leave aside whether or not the commenter is himself Peter Kirby. The article referenced is a very long one by Kirby entitled “The Authenticity of John the Baptist in Josephus,” uploaded May 21, 2015. The article offers fifteen arguments for authenticity followed by eleven arguments for inauthenticity. By “authenticity” Kirby means that Flavius Josephus himself penned the passage on John the Baptist in his book Antiquities of the Jews.

I am taking up this issue not because it is seminal to early Christian studies, but because it exposes a great ‘shift in thinking’ that must take place in each of us in order to correctly evaluate the evidence from two thousand years ago. That shift in thinking has everything to do with the fact that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist before his invention, c. 140 CE.

I respond to Kirby’s article in this and subsequent posts, limiting myself to selected points. For readers short on time, the most seminal passages below are signaled by an asterisk in the header.

Arguments for authenticity

(1) The Textual Witness Itself
Kirby notes that the Josephan passage regarding the Baptist is in all the manuscripts of Josephus. However, the writings of Josephus were preserved by the Church which, for long centuries, had full power to alter, destroy, and interpolate at will. Thus, the presence or absence of a passage in the manuscripts is not telling as regards authenticity, for the Church itself determined what was and was not in the texts and copies.

Kirby continues that the Josephan passage was generally referenced by Origen and “quoted nearly in full” by Eusebius. But Origen flourished c. 200 CE, and Eusebius a century later—long after an interpolator could have inserted the passage into one or two manuscripts of Josephus. That the John the Baptist passage today exists in all the manuscripts of Josephus merely reflects my previous paragraph: the Church for long centuries made sure this would be the case.

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

It seems highly unlikely that any Christian, whether Jewish Christian or Gentile Christian (it does not matter for this argument), would have interpolated a lengthy passage on John into Josephus, while leaving the text bereft of any passage regarding the much more important figure in Christian belief, i.e., Jesus.—Peter Kirby

In my view, this is a perfect example of why scholars across the board have been utterly unable to sort out Christian origins. Contra Kirby, the Jesus Mythicist must conclude the contrary: it is eminently possible that the Josephan text was “bereft of any passage regarding the much more important figure in Christian belief, i.e., Jesus.” Why can one be so sure? Because Jesus of Nazareth did not yet exist!

The only exception would be if the interpolator worked after c. 140 CE. In this case, he could have known ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ a figure introduced in rapid succession by all four gospels of the New Testament towards the middle of II CE—probably in immediate reaction to Marcion’s activities in Rome and elsewhere. However, as I show in another post, the figure ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ was not a certain or even secure resource for Christian writers until c. 200 CE.

Let’s further examine this issue, which is critical. The work of Robert Price, the late Hermann Detering, and myself suggest that the canonical gospels (and the storyline conveyed in them) dates to the second century CE, not the first. I have argued for a more precise dating for the 4G: the decade of the 140s CE.

Together with Price, Georges Ory, and others, I have also argued that the seminal figure associated with Christian beginnings was John ‘the Baptist,’ not Jesus of Nazareth. This suspicion has existed ever since Bultmann (even before?). The reasons are many: the Fourth Gospel has John firmly established before Jesus (who draws disciples from John); John is lauded by Jesus himself as the greatest of men (Mt 11:11); the words of John are curiously the very words of Jesus (cp. Lk 3:9//Mt 7:19) or very similar (cf. Lk 3:11); John and Jesus are related by blood, and so on. When we research long marginalized works and sects, further evidence arises: the Hebrew Gospel of Matthew (Howard) actually states “John is Jesus” (HebMt 3:10); the Mandeans venerate John and villify Jesus… etc.

(For discussions of John = Jesus, see on this website: Price; G. Ory; and Salm.)

For obvious reasons, it’s very difficult for people today to imagine an early Christianity without Jesus of Nazareth. For those who are, however, successful in resurrecting such an early time—now a full two thousand years ago—it becomes patently clear that any Christian who wrote before the mid-second century CE would have referred not to Jesus of Nazareth (who was not yet invented) but to John/Johanan/Yeshu ha-Notsri, a prophet who, I maintain, lived in the early first century BCE. This renders it obvious why, in turn, an early Christian “would have interpolated a lengthy passage on John into Josephus, while leaving the text bereft of any passage regarding the much more important figure in Christian belief, i.e., Jesus” (pace Kirby).

(3) The Unlikelihood of a Christian Interpolation on John Saying Nothing of Jesus

Kirby’s article offers an extensive quote from John Meier (“John the Baptist in Josephus,” JBL 111.2:227):

The account Josephus gives of the Baptist is literarily and theologically unconnected with the account of Jesus, which occurs earlier in book 18 and correspondingly lacks any reference to the Baptist. The passage about the Baptist, which is more than twice as long as the passage about Jesus, is also notably more laudatory. It also differs from (but does not formally contradict) the four Gospels in its presentation both of John’s ministry and of his death. Hence it is hard to imagine a Christian scribe inserting into book 18 of the Antiquities two passages about Jesus and the Baptist in which the Baptist appears on the scene after Jesus dies, has no connection with Jesus, receives more extensive treatment than Jesus, and is praised more highly than Jesus.

With the information given above in ¶2, we must look at this quote in an entirely novel way. First of all, the astonishing praise heaped upon the Baptist loses its mystery—John was the Jesus (lit. “Savior”) for the earliest Christians. Secondly, we can appreciate that the account of John would necessarily differ from the four gospels “in its presentation both of John’s ministry and of his death.” This is because the Christian interpolation into Josephus occurred before the 4G became extant in mid-II CE.

We now have no difficulty contrasting the orthodox view of John the Baptist (as developed after mid-II CE) with that described in the Josephan passage on John. Kirby cites Robert Webb, a scholar ‘in the old way of thinking’ who finds multiple problems in the received story:

[I]f this passage was a Christian interpolation, then we would expect an account which would more closely conform to the NT traditions about John. This expectation is reasonable because the probable purpose of such a Christian interpolation would be to confirm the NT account. However, there are a number of significant differences between the Josephan account and the NT. Some of these include the description of John’s message, the explanation of John’s baptism, and the reason for his arrest and execution. But the most significant difference is the silence of this text on the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus.

All these problems are now resolved by the Jesus Mythicist. Once Jesus of Nazareth is removed from all history prior to mid-II CE, then John ‘the Baptist’ emerges as the powerful prophet in solitary splendor.

Kirby concludes, quite erroneously: “The fact that the passage makes no reference to Jesus in its discussion of John the Baptist suggests that it was written from a non-Christian perspective, which speaks against the hypothesis that the passage is interpolated.” In fact, the interpolated passage was written from a Christian perspective—one that we no longer understand today, for that perspective was radically changed with the invention of Jesus of Nazareth. And, yes, the passage is an interpolation—by a person whom we would today not even consider a ‘Christian’—for he was a follower of John ‘the Baptist’ ( = Yeshu).

(4) Teaching Attributed to the Baptist Consistent with Josephus’ Aims

Here is the closing sentence in this section of the article, drawn from a citation by J. Meier (“John the Baptist in Josephus,” p. 234):

If the Synoptic portrait of John the Baptist did not exist, something like it would have to be invented to supply the material that Josephus either suppresses or simply does not know.

Does one detect circular reasoning? Meier is baldly stating that the synoptic portrait of John the Baptist would have to be invented because “Josephus either suppresses or simply does not know” it. In other words, Meier begins with the certainty that the synoptic portrayal of John is historical. He then naturally concludes that it’s omission by Josephus is because the historiographer simply “does not know” it or “suppresses” it. Oof.

In fact, the version of John’s activity portrayed by the interpolator may be true to history—within the usual bounds of religious hyperbole, of course. It is the (later) canonical version that is flagrantly under suspicion.

(6) A Poor Chronological Fit with the Timeline of the Gospels

Kirby writes:

If a Christian were interpolating a passage on John the Baptist into the text of Josephus, it would be more expected that the location chosen would be close to the earlier discussion of Herod Antipas and thus just before or during the discussion of Pilate, in accordance with the chronology of the New Testament Gospels.

However, as we now see, “the chronology of the New Testament Gospels” is irrelevant—those texts were not yet written when the interpolator penned the Josephan passage.

Kirby does, however, raise an important point: the interpolator was historically untutored. For him, writing perhaps about 100 CE, the prophet/founder of Christianity—John ‘the Baptist’—lived some generations in the past. The interpolator naively placed the prophet’s ministry in the time of Herod Antipas. The true dating of the prophet Johanan/Yeshu one hundred years earlier was either forgotten or mixed up by the interpolator. (See HERE on dating the prophet at the root of Christianity.)

*(7) The Reason for the Execution of John in Disagreement with the Gospels

Emphasis on the criterion of dissimilarity (with the canonical gospels) impels Kirby to place this argument in the “authenticity” column. However, once we jettison the gospels altogether (they were posterior to the interpolator), the criterion of dissimilarity itself evaporates completely—there was nothing yet to be dissimilar to.

In short, the reason that the cause for the Baptist’s death in Josephus is at odds with the cause given in the NT is that the interpolator did not know the NT!

However, as mentioned above in point ¶6, the interpolator may have had some vague knowledge of the prophet’s true ministry and denoument. According to Talmudic records, Yeshu ha-Notsri was executed c. 67 BCE by the Sanhedrin for apostasy and “leading the people astray.” Yeshu was an important figure—himself related by blood to the royal family. And he was successful among the people, preaching a radically un-Jewish heresy imbued with gnosticism—essentially, a version of Buddhism.

The interpolator gives ‘fear on the part of Herod Antipas’ for John’s death. The seminal passage from the interpolation is as follows:

When others too joined the crowds about [John], 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.

This is the typical reaction of a despot fearful of an upstart’s success with the people. All this conforms perfectly with the situation of Jonathan/Yeshu ha-Notsri, a prophet in the time of Janneus-Alexandra who presented a dual threat to the Jewish establishment. On the one hand, he threatened the king by being himself in the royal family. On the other hand, he threatened the religious establishment by bringing a radically un-Jewish heresy to the masses.

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

Kirby cites a writer:

[Josephus] uses no other nouns for ‘baptism’ than those used here [βαπτισμός and βάπτισις], which is quite strange if this text is a Christian interpolation. He never uses the noun βάπτισμα, which is the usual Christian noun for baptism (both John’s baptism and Christian baptism), and we would expect that term here if the text was a Christian interpolation.

This argument loses force when one realizes that the Christian gospels were not yet composed when the interpolator penned the passage under consideration. Whether or not the interpolator is termed by us a “Christian,” he did not yet know Jesus of Nazareth. He would have been the sort of Christian scholars today dismiss out of hand as a docetist—one for whom Jesus had no body. It is a misnomer, for the “Jesus” of the early Christians was the universal spirit of God that indwells the body of any believer and that indwelled the body of John ‘the Baptist.’ To say this Jesus ‘has no body’ is true yet misleading—it is a sneering caricature used by the Church Fathers with malice, a straw man that they knocked down with their awe-inspiring invention, Jesus of Nazareth (see next post).

For the first century Christian, any worthy follower can become ‘a Jesus.’ This was Christianity before the invention of Jesus of Nazareth in mid-II CE, a Christianity suppressed by the Church and now long forgotten. This older and more authentic form of Christianity is evident in marginalized texts such as the Acts of Pilate and the non-canonical acts of various apostles.

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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