Josephus’ Account of John the Baptist: A Christian Interpolation?

In: Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus

This essay provides fresh insight into the possibility that the passage in Josephus about John the Baptist (Jewish Antiquities, 18.116-119) was not written by Josephus himself. In making the case for its interpolation or adaptation by the hand of a writer representing an early Christian or Jewish-Christian sect, the essay focuses on how the text describes John's baptism and its distinguishing characteristics as well as the similarities it shares with immersions common amid early Christian or Jewish-Christian sects. Of particular importance to uncovering the theological identity of this baptism is its description as an external physical purification, whose efficacy is preconditioned by inner spiritual purification. This essay shows that baptism of this nature did not exist amid mainstream Jewish circles of the Second Temple period. Such baptism appeared and developed within sectarian groups on the margins of Judaism, as at Qumran. It was then carried on and practised by early Christian or Jewish-Christian groups in the first centuries ce.

  • 2)

     See, for example, L.H. Feldman‘Flavius Josephus Revisited: The Man, His Writings, and His Significance’ANRW II/21.2 (1984), pp. 763-862 (821-22); P. Bilde, Flavius Josephus between Jerusalem and Rome: His Life, his Works and their Importance (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1988), p. 223; J. Ernst, Johannes der Täufer (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1989), p. 255; O. Betz, ‘Was John the Baptist an Essene?’ in H. Shanks (ed.), Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls: Reader from the Biblical Archaeology Review (New York: Random House, 1992), pp. 206, 207; S. Mason, ‘Fire, Water and Spirit: John the Baptist and the Tyranny of Canon’, Studies in Religion 21.2 (1992), pp. 163-80 (178-79); idem, Josephus and the New Testament, pp. 213-25; R.L. Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Socio-Historical Study (JSNTSup 62; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), pp. 40-41, 163-216; idem, ‘John the Baptist and his Relation to Jesus’, in B.C. Chilton and C.A. Evans (eds.), Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research (Leiden: Brill, 1994), pp. 179-229 (190, 191); Meier, ‘Jesus in Josephus’, pp. 76-103; idem, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, II (New York: Doubleday, 1994), pp. 19, 21-22, 56; J.E. Taylor, The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1997), p. 90; J. Tromp, ‘John the Baptist According to Flavius Josephus and his Incorporation in the Christian Tradition’, in A. Houtman, A. de Jong and M.W.M. van de Weg (eds.), Empichoi Logoi – Religious Innovations in Antiquity, Studies in honour of Pieter Willem van der Horst (Boston; Leiden: Brill, 2008), pp. 135-49.

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  • 4)

    H. St J. ThackerayJosephus, the Man and the Historian (New York: Ktav Pub. House1967), pp. 110-12, 132, 136; W. Mizugaki, ‘Origen and Josephus’, in H.L. Feldman and G. Hata (eds.), Josephus, Judaism and Christianity (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987), pp. 325-37 (335); E. Nodet, ‘Jesus et Jean Baptist selon Josephus’, RB 82 (1988), pp. 321-48 (324-26); Mason, ‘Fire, Water and Spirit’, p. 178; Meier, A Marginal Jew, II, p. 19.

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  • 6)

    L. HerrmannChrestos. Témoignages paients et juifs sur le christianisme du premier siècle (Brussels: Latomus, Revue d’Etudes Latines1970), p. 99; idem, ‘Herodiade’, REJ 132 (1973), pp. 49-63 (51).

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  • 9)

    GraetzGeschichte der Juden, p. 276, n. 3; Abrahams, Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, p. 33.

  • 11)

     See K.H. RengstorfA Complete Concordance to Flavius Josephus (Leiden: Brill2002), I, p. 290. Typically, this verb is used in reference to Bannus and to the Essenes, as I will show below.

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  • 13)

    A.Y. Reed‘“Jewish Christianity” after the “Parting of the Ways”’, pp. 197-231; idem, ‘Heresiology and the (Jewish-) Christian Novel’, pp. 273-98; idem, ‘“Jewish Christianity” as Counter-history? The apostolic past in Eusebius’ Ecclessiastical history and the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies’, in Antiquity in antiquity: Jewish and Christian pasts in the Greco-Roman World (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), pp. 173-216; D. Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Judaism and Christianity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); idem, Border Lines: The Partition of Judeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

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  • 14)

    Reed‘“Jewish Christianity” as Counter-history?’, pp. 203-207; S.C. Mimouni, ‘Pour une définition nouvelle du Judéo-Christianisme ancien’, NTS 38 (1992), pp. 161-86 (184).

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  • 20)

    WebbJohn the Baptizer and Prophet, pp. 37, 199-202; idem, ‘John the Baptist and his Relation to Jesus’, pp. 195-96. Similarly, see Goguel, Au seuil de l’évangile, p. 16; C.H. Kraeling, John the Baptist (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951), p. 119; Thomas, Le mouvement Baptiste en Palestine et Syrie, p. 378; F.J. Foakes Jackson and K. Lake, The Beginning of Christianity, Part I, The Acts of the Apostles (London: Macmillan, 1920), pp. 102, 105. For counter-argument see G.H. Twelftree, ‘Jesus the Baptist’, JSHJ 7 (2009), pp. 103-125 (121), who disclaims John's baptism as mark of initiation into a new community. See also Chilton, ‘John the Baptist: His Immersion and his Death’, in S.E. Porter and A.R. Cross (eds.), Dimensions of Baptism, Biblical and Theological Studies (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), pp. 25-44 (37).

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  • 22)

     On this reading see: J.P. Meier‘John the Baptist in Josephus: Philology and Exegesis’JBL 111.2 (1992), pp. 225-37 (229-33); idem, A Marginal Jew, II, p. 58; E. Lupieri, ‘John the Baptist in New Testament Traditions and History’, ANRW 26.1 (Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1993), pp. 430-61 (451).

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  • 25)

    B. PrzybylskiRighteousness in Matthew and His World of Thought (SNTSMS 41; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1980), p. 20.

  • 26)

    PrzybylskiRighteousness, p. 21. See further CD 20.11; 6.10-11 ‘until there arise he who teaches justice at the end of days’; 1QS 3.20-22. For more examples see J. Kampen, ‘“Righteousness” in Matthew and the Legal Texts from Qumran’, in M. Bernstein, F. García Martinez and J. Kampen (eds.), Legal Texts and Legal Issues: Proceedings of the Second Meeting of the International Organization for Qumran Studies Cambridge 1995Published in Honour of Joseph M. Baumgarten (Leiden: Brill, 1997), pp. 461-87.

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  • 28)

    Kampen‘“Righteousness” in Matthew and the Legal Texts from Qumran’, p. 486; W. Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 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. Matt 5:6, 10; 6:1ff).’

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  • 33)

    WebbJohn the Baptizer and Prophet, p. 183; idem, ‘John the Baptist and his Relation to Jesus’, p. 187.

  • 34)

    A. PlummerA Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Luke (Edinburgh: T & T Clark1922), p. 86.

  • 38)

    WebbJohn the Baptizer and Prophet, pp. 166, 203.

  • 40)

    J. MilgromLeviticus 1–16 (New York: Doubleday1991), p. 149. The basic meaning of the form δεκτός as used in LXX is ‘“acceptable” or “pleasing” on the basis of a divine will’. Grundmann, s.v. δέχομαι, TDNT, II, p. 58.

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  • 41)

    Against Chilton‘John the Baptist: His Immersion and his Death’, pp. 34-35, who argues: ‘The notion that John somewhat opposed the cult in the Temple is weakly based’.

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  • 46)

    D. BoyarinBorder Lines (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press2007), pp. 1-23.

  • 50)

    A. BüchlerStudies in Sin and Atonement in the Rabbinic Literature of the First Century (London: Oxford University Press1928), pp. 369, 375-461; Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, pp. 96-108; D.P. Write, The Disposal of Impurity: Elimination Rites in the Bible and in Hittite and Mesopotamian Literature (SBLDS 101; Atlanta: SBL, 1987), p. 85; Milgrom, Leviticus 1–16, p. 857; G.J. Wenham, The Book of Leviticus (NICOT; Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1979), pp. 26-28. On the absolute separation tannaitic literature draws between the concepts of ritual purity and impurity and of sin and repentance, see J. Klawans, Impurity and Sin, pp. 92-117, 142.

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  • 51)

    B.D. ChiltonJudaic Approaches to the Gospels (Atlanta: Scholars Press1994), pp. 26-28; H. Lichtenberger, ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls and John the Baptist: Reflections on Josephus’ Account of John the Baptist’, in D. Dimant and U. Rappaport (eds.), The Dead Sea Scrolls: Forty Years of Research (STDJ 10; Leiden: Brill, 1992), pp. 340-46 (344).

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  • 57)

    Mason‘Fire, Water and Spirit’, p. 178; idem, Flavius Josephus on the Pharisees: Composition – Critical Study (Leiden: Brill, 1991), p. 87; idem, ‘What Josephus Says about the Essenes in his Judean War’, in S.G. Wilson and M. Desjardins (eds.), Text and Artifact in the Religions of Mediterranean Antiquity: Essays in Honour of Peter Richardson (Canada: Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion/Corporation des Sciences Religieuses, 2000), pp. 423-55 (440-41); Lichtenberger, ‘The Dead Sea Scrolls and John the Baptist’, pp. 344-46; Black, The Scrolls and Christian Origins, p. 98.

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  • 59)

    H.A. WolfsonPhilo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press1968), II, pp. 218-25.

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  • 61)

     See also Justin MartyrDialogue with Trypho23; 47, and especially 93. See also the pairing in the Qumran scrolls: ‘to walk in the ways of God, to act righteously’ (4Q421 II.12-13) and my discussion on the term tsedaqa above.

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  • 62)

    KlawansImpurity and Sin, p. 140.

  • 63)

    TaylorThe Immerser: John the Baptist, p. 86.

  • 64)

    PhiloOn the Unchangeableness of God 7-9; On Noah's Work as a Planter 164; On the Special Laws 1.191, 1.203-204, 1.275, 1.283-284; 2.35.

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  • 66)

    KlawansImpurity and Sin, p. 93; Efron, Studies on the Hasmonean Period, pp. 143-47.

  • 67)

    KlawansImpurity and Sin, pp. 95-97.

  • 68)

    KlawansImpurity and Sin, pp. 93, 94.

  • 69)

    KlawansImpurity and Sin, p. 95.

  • 70)

    KlawansImpurity and Sin, pp. 115-17.

  • 71)

    KlawansImpurity and Sin, p. 117.

  • 75)

    J.M. Baumgarten‘Sacrifice and Worship among the Jewish Sectarians of the Dead Sea (Qumrân) Scrolls’HTR 46 (1953), pp. 141-59 (151); Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, pp. 159-60.

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  • 80)

    J.J. Collins‘The Place of the Fourth Sibyl in the Development of the Jewish Sibyllina’JJS 25 (1974), pp. 365-80 (366-67, 378). According to Collins, baptism in the Fourth Sibylline is a one-time event, in contrast to the frequently repeated immersions practised by the Qumran sect. As I attempt to show, however, it is possible that in all these groups, one-time baptism existed side-by-side with daily immersions.

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  • 81)

    TaylorThe Immerser: John the Baptist, pp. 84-88.

  • 85)

    Flusser‘Johannine baptism and the Qumran sect’, pp. 104-111; idem, Judaism and the Origins of Christianity, p. 52.

  • 87)

    Cyrilli Hierosol.Catechesis 3.4 (PG 33, col. 429).

  • 89)

    According to J.A. Fitzmyer‘The Qumran Scrolls, the Ebionites and their Literature’TS 16 (1955), pp. 335-72 (371): ‘the sect of Qumran influenced the Ebionites in many ways; Essene tenets and practices were undoubtedly adopted or adapted into the Ebionite way of life’. On the existence of Jewish-Christian groups in the first four centuries, defined as Christian Jews and their Gentile converts who maintained Jewish praxis, see Taylor, ‘The Phenomenon of Early Jewish-Christianity’, p. 327.

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