Vridar

2013/02/05

Historical Reconstruction or a “Mad House”?

Filed under: Historical methodology,John P. Meier,The Jesus Process — Tim Widowfield @ 12:58 pm
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“He is unlike any man you have ever seen . . .”

If you’ve ever watched the original Planet of the Apes, you no doubt remember the scene in which the Tribunal of the National Academy questions Charlton Heston (Taylor, aka “Bright Eyes”). None of Taylor’s explanations make any sense to the tribunal, of course. If fact, the disturbing testimony causes them to assume the position.

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Later we discover that the Minister of Science and Chief Defender of the Faith, Dr. Zaius, knows a great deal more than he at first let on. From the 1967 shooting script:

                                TAYLOR	 
			I told the truth at that 'hearing' of yours.

				ZAIUS
			You lied. Where is your tribe?

				TAYLOR 
			My tribe, as you call it, lives on another 
			planet in a distant solar system.

				ZAIUS 
			Then how is it we speak the same language?
				(suddenly intense) 
			Even in your lies, some truth slips 
			through! That mythical community you're 
			supposed to come from -- 'Fort Wayne'?

				TAYLOR 
			What about it?

				ZAIUS 
			A fort! Unconsciously, you chose a name 
			that was belligerent.

“Even in your lies, some truth slips through!”

I often think of those two scenes — Taylor’s hearing and its aftermath — when I’m reading up on the historical Jesus. Very few modern critical scholars believe that Mark is telling the truth about the splitting of the firmament and the booming voice from heaven at the baptism. Yet, “even in [Mark’s] lies, some truth slips through.”

Consider R Joseph Hoffmann’s assertion in his latest post.

(more…)

2012/01/30

John the Baptist and the foundations of Christianity (Couchoud)

Filed under: Couchoud: Creation of Christ,John the Baptist — Neil Godfrey @ 3:00 am
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In the next chapter of this series we read the view that John the Baptist was a key figure in sparking the movement that became Christianity. Couchoud takes the date for John from Josephus — that is, towards the end of Pilate’s office in 36 c.e. Couchoud believes strongly that there was a fervent expectation among the Jews for a divine messianic deliverer. John was part of this popular hope when he came preaching the coming of the heavenly Messiah figure to judge the world. John’s message was thus fed by the tradition we read of in the above works (Daniel, Enoch, Moses).

Zechariah 13:3 had said there would be no more prophets but John was not afraid to don the prophet’s mantle and take their place. John did not create an image of the Heavenly Man but delivered threats against those who this figure would judge:

O generation of vipers,  [ Pliny, Nat. Hist. viii. 59, 1 — the viper was believed to be the only snake that could bury itself in the earth – metaphor of those who think they can hide from the wrath of God ]
Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance,

Do not to say to yourselves,
We have Abraham to our father:
I say unto you that God is able
Of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.  [ “stones” = Aramaic abenayya; children = Aramaic benayya ]

Already the axe
Is laid unto the root of the trees:
Every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit
Is hewn down and cast into the fire.

He that cometh after me
Is mightier than I,
Whose shoes I am not worthy to untie:
I baptize you with water,
He will baptize you with wind and fire: [ the context of the next verse explains the meaning of wind and fire; the word “holy” before wind (same word as spirit) was a Christian addition and foreign to the context ]

His fan is in his hand,
To purge thoroughly his floor,
And gather his wheat into his garner;
But he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

The urgency of this message (taken from Luke and Matthew) leaves no room for delay. The judgement from this heavenly Son of Man figure from the Book of Enoch is about to befall. (more…)

2011/12/06

Reasonably doubting that John baptized Jesus — Or how HJ scholars worked before they had Tools

Does it really advance historiography to rename weak arguments "tools"?

There’s something very reassuring knowing you have a tool at hand if you are an archaeologist and hope to dig through layers of earth to find new historical evidence. And if you are a scholar of the historical Jesus you can always feel more secure in what you find digging beneath the texts if you can boast that you are deploying the latest tools in your efforts. Saying you are using a historians’ tools almost sounds as if you are on a level with a doctor using blood tests and blood pressure monitors in order to reach some level of objective assurance in a diagnosis.

One of these tools historical Jesus scholars use is embarrassment. That may sound like a flakey concept for a tool to the uninformed, but it historical Jesus scholars are widely known for explaining the tools they use to reach certain conclusions, and one of their tools is the criterion of embarrassment.

By using this tool these scholars, most of them anyway, can say with quite some confidence that it is a historical fact that John the Baptist baptized Jesus. The reasoning is that early Christians would have been embarrassed by their master Jesus being baptized by John as if a common penitent or inferior to the prophet, so it is not a story they would have invented. So the fact that they told the story shows they must not have been able to conceal the fact and were forced to live with, or explain away, their embarrassment. The baptism must thus be an historical event according to the criterion of embarrassment.

But of course the argument about embarrassment existed before historical Jesus scholars agreed not so very long ago to think about certain of their standard arguments as “tools”.

A secular rationalist argument in the pre-tool era

Contrast how this same matter of embarrassment could be handled in an argument before the days it was elevated to its modern technological status. (more…)

2011/10/07

More reasons for an early Christian to invent the story of Jesus’ baptism

Bill Arnal and Leif E. Vaage are not the only scholars who have published doubts about the historicity of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. I mentioned them back in January this year. Another was Burton Mack in Myth of Innocence. (The evidence against historicity is in my view overwhelming. I have shown the weakness of the arguments by E. P. Sanders for its historicity and posted before on how the scene’s can be explained entirely in terms of literary function and artifice without any need to resort to assumptions of extraneous events outside the text.) But for sake of completeness here is Burton Mack’s argument for treating it as entirely mythical. I highlight in bold type the reasons he sees evident for the need or wish of early Christians to invent the episode. Far from the scene being an embarrassment to the first Christians to have heard the story, it was surely welcomed. Only later evangelists reading Mark’s gospel felt embarrassment over Mark’s account because they had quite different views of Jesus.

The framework stories of the gospels are the most highly mythologized type of material. They include the narratives of Jesus’ birth, baptism, transfiguration, crucifixion, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances. The transfiguration story is purely mythological, as are the birth narratives, the story of the empty tomb, and the appearances of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples. Critical scholars would not say that any of these derive from reminiscences.

The baptism story is also mythic, but in this case may derive from lore about Jesus and John the Baptist. Lore about John and Jesus is present in the sayings tradition, in a pronouncement story, and other legends both in Q and in Mark. John the Baptist was a public figure whose social role was similar to that of Jesus and whose followers were regarded by some followers of Jesus as competitors.

Except for the baptism story, however, there is no indication that Jesus and John crossed paths.

(more…)

2011/05/31

Mythicist Papers: Background to Christian Myths – a 3 day death, Nazarenes, the John the Baptist sect. . . .

Crescent Moon (NASA, International Space Stati...

Image by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center via Flickr

René Salm has translated the first two chapters of a fascinating study by Ditlef Nielsen, The Old Arabian Moon Religion And The Mosaic Tradition (1904) and made them available online at his Mythicist Papers resource page.

He has other resources there, too. Anyone interested in the origins of the “Nazarene” epithet [n-ts-r] applied to Jesus and early Christians, in the roots of the three-day death and resurrection concept in myth, of the (very early) background to what the later emergence of the Mandean or John the Baptist sect, the astrological basis for the Jewish sabbath and “magical” numbers, will find these resources indispensable. I have just completed the second chapter of Nielsen’s book and found it absolutely fascinating.

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2011/05/14

John the Baptist foreshadowed in Homer’s Odyssey?

Filed under: Bible as literature,John the Baptist — Neil Godfrey @ 7:24 pm
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Another interesting observation in Bruce Louden‘s Homer’s Odyssey and the Near East is his drawing a possible link between John the Baptist and Halitherses in the Odyssey. Louden explains that Halitherses is an aged prophet, close to the hero Odysseus, who warns the nobles in Odysseus’ absence to stop their evil plans or they will suffer the judgment of Odysseus upon his return.

That was enough to send me back to reading the Odyssey and I think the following passage that depicts Halitherses’  “preaching” worth quoting in full. I conclude with another in which Louden shows us that the message of the return of the king to his kingdom in the Odyssey is in a sense called “good news”, a word very similar to “gospel”. (more…)

2011/03/30

Taking the Gospels seriously, part 2 (What John Baptist supposedly meant to Jesus)

I often find myself wishing some knowledgable scholars who write about “the historical Jesus” would take their Gospel sources more seriously.

To take just one illustration, I don’t know if I have read any scholarly work addressing the baptism of Jesus that fails to make some reference to the “influence of John the Baptist on Jesus”, or to the “calling of Jesus”, or such. The presumption is always that Jesus was some sort of spiritual “seeker” who was profoundly moved in some way by John the Baptist and as a direct consequence was catapulted on his own solo career.

Here is one example of this:

What we do know past doubting is that John had a crucially important impact on Jesus. According to the synoptic tradition, Jesus in some sense received his calling during or just after his baptism. (p. 191 of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, by Paula Fredriksen)

And another that is within easy reach on my desk:

We can now see what attracted Jesus to John. John exercised a large-scale and highly successful prophetic ministry of repentance to Israel. . . . He offered salvation and predicted judgement in terms which recreated the Judaism of the prophetic tradition. This explains why Jesus underwent John’s baptism. . . . Jesus thereby joined this vigorous movement of prophetic Judaism. . . . On the occasion of his baptism, Jesus had a visionary experience. . . . (p. 176 of Jesus of Nazareth by Maurice Casey.) (more…)

2011/03/27

When neither the Gospel nor Josephus makes sense

Execution of John the Baptist

Image via Wikipedia

The image we have from the Gospels of the death of John the Baptist belongs to the world of make-believe fantasy. A man out in the wilderness publicly complains that a king’s marriage is unlawful, so the king has him arrested and imprisoned. Later he is seduced by a dance into making an incautious promise so that he is honour-bound to deliver the head of John on a dinner plate to his new wife.

There’s another story in a historical work by Josephus about how John the Baptist met his death. John had a reputation for teaching people to be good towards one another and reverential before God. His teaching was so persuasive that Herod was frightened John might decide to tell all his followers to rise up and rebel against their king, so had him sent of to prison to be executed. (Antiquites 18.5.2)

Paula Fredriksen, author of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, is one scholar who acknowledges that neither account makes much sense. (more…)

2011/01/29

5 reasons to suspect John the Baptist was interpolated into Josephus

Filed under: John the Baptist,Josephus — Neil Godfrey @ 6:33 pm
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Said to be the part of the skull (de cranis) of John the Baptist, in reliquarium, Residenz, Munich

Image via Wikipedia

Frank Zindler (The Jesus the Jews Never Knew) gives five reasons to think that Josephus said nothing at all about John the Baptist.

This is something that is not generally welcomed by those who are primarily interested in defending the possibility of any independent (non Christian) evidence at all for the historical background to the gospel narrative, but it is of interest to anyone who is interested in examining the evidence with an open mind.

Unlike the interpolation of the Jesus passage(s) into Josephus, Zindler suggests that the John the Baptist passage was inserted by a Jewish Christian or “an apologist for one of the myriad ‘heretical’ sects which are known to have existed from the earliest periods of Christian history.” (p. 96) One possibility he offers is even a pre-Christian Baptist of some sort.

Because there are details of John the Baptist in Josephus that are at odds with those we find in the Gospels many scholars, writes Zindler, have been persuaded the words about John the Baptist really were composed by Josephus. But Zindler reminds us that

many non-gospel views of the Baptist existed during the first three centuries (indeed, a decidedly non-gospel type of John the Baptist holds a very prominent place in the Mandaean religion to this day), and an unknown number of them might have held the opinion now supposed to have been that of Josephus. (p. 97)

Here are Zindler’s reasons for believing the passage in Josephus is a forgery. (more…)

2011/01/18

Did not even John the Baptist recognize Jesus at the Jordan River?

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,John the Baptist — Neil Godfrey @ 10:40 pm
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Geertgen tot Sint Jans (15th century): "John the Baptist"

Image via Wikipedia

Mark’s gospel makes little sense if read as literal history, but it packs a powerful punch when read with a mind swept clean of all the other gospel accounts.

The punch the Gospel of Mark hit me with recently was its sentence noting John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus. It’s bizarre if we try to read it as biography or history. But it makes for a great symbolic message about the identity and function of Jesus.

The Gospel begins with John declaring that one far greater than he is to come from God and cover his followers not with water but with the holy spirit. The preamble has informed readers that this coming one is to be the one of whom the Prophets said is the Lord himself. Everyone came out repenting and being baptized.

Then Jesus came along and John baptized him too.

And that’s it. Mark gives not the slightest hint that John baulked and said, Hey, you’re the one! Nope. It’s as if Jesus was the last in line and John routinely baptized him like all the rest.

Then up from the water came Jesus and “he” (only) saw the spirit descending to him like a dove. No one else saw this or the heavens splitting apart, and no-one but Jesus heard the voice from heaven declaring him to be God’s son.

This is strange. It is especially strange if, as many modern interpreters like to think, Jesus was originally a follower of John the Baptist.

No, what Mark is doing here is entirely at a literary level. (more…)

2011/01/01

Where Did John the Baptist’s Parents Come From? Reading the Gospels “with Jewish Eyes”

Annunciation to Zechariah. Fragment of russian...
Image via Wikipedia

The names of the parents of both Jesus and John the Baptist were arguably created from the imaginations of the Gospel authors working on Old Testament passages for inspiration. The names were fabricated because of the theological messages they conveyed. There is no evidence to indicate that they were handed down from historical memory.

This is not a “mythicist” or “atheist” argument. It is the result of scholarly research by an Anglican vicar and an Episcopal bishop.

Both have published scholarly reasons for believing that the names Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, and Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, were carefully selected by early Christians on the basis of their ability to convey particular theological meanings. Goulder and Spong describe this process as “midrash”. Spong explains what he means by this:

How to read the Gospels as Jewish books

[T]here are stories in the Gospels that are so deeply reminiscent of stories in the Old Testament that one might inquire as to the reason for their similarity. Was that accidental or coincidental? Or does it point to something we might have missed? . . .

In a deep and significant way, we are now able to see that all of the Gospels are Jewish books, profoundly Jewish books. Recognizing this, we begin to face the realization that we will never understand the Gospels until we learn how to read them as Jewish books. They are written, to a greater or lesser degree, in the midrashic sytle of the Jewish sacred storyteller, a style that most of us do not begin even now to comprehend. This style is not concerned with historical accuracy. It is concerned with meaning and understanding. (more…)

2010/12/25

Embarrassing failure of the criterion of embarrassment

Dome depicting the baptism of Jesus by Saint John the Baptist, and a pagan god in the guise of an old man stands to one side holding a leather bag; Arian baptistry, Ravenna, Italy.

Both symbolic (scroll on image to see the text) and embarrassing (don't double click the image to look at Jesus too closely) baptism scene. Image via Wikipedia

So I hear from commenters that a new foray into demolishing mythicism has been launched by James McGrath with yet one more account of the “criterion of embarrassment”. The curious — yet tedious — thing about this is that while McGrath in particular has faulted mythicists for (supposedly) failing to engage with the scholarship on the historical Jesus, he himself, and some of the other more strident critics of mythicism, have notably failed to engage with the mythicist responses to those scholarly arguments.

James McGrath once wrote:

I have not yet seen . . . . a mythicist who engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion.

So when I proceeded to engage E. P. Sanders himself “point by point’ — and one of those points was Sanders’ argument for the historicity of the baptism of Jesus — I was disappointed that there was no response from McGrath. But he can no longer say that he has not yet seen a mythicist who engages a scholar like Sanders point by point and argues the case for drawing a different conclusion. I still await an opponent of mythicism to engage with the argument for the nonhistoricity of the narrative of the baptism of Jesus that I made in the following posts:

Engaging Sanders Point by Point: John the Baptist

Baptism of Jesus is . . . entirely creative literature

There are many possible reasons why McGrath did not respond to these. But what is not clear is why he would still use the criterion of embarrassment, with the baptism of Jesus as a principle case-study, as if no mythicist argument had ever been mounted against it. Why simply repeat the same argument that mythicists have long since responded to and found wanting? (more…)

2010/11/18

John the Baptist’s head: a eucharist for the Herods

Filed under: Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 4:37 pm
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Herodias' Revenge Museum Mayer van den Bergh, ...

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Mark narrates in 6:14-29 the incident about Herod and John the Baptist in a way that makes the reader see it as endowed with a symbolic meaning. What we get is a perverted counter-eucharist: a deipnon among the Jewish political leaders which is dominated by the passions of the body (sexual desires) and in which the head of John the Baptist is served on a plate. (Fortunately, I am not the only one to read the story like this; cf. . . . . van Iersel B.M.F 1998: Mark. A Reader-Response Commentary, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 164, Sheffield).

This is from Henrik Tronier, Philonic Allegory in Mark. I feel incomplete not having read van Iersel, and feeling financially boa constricted when I see that the price of even a second hand copy is well in excess of $100!

Until I read this in Tronier’s article, almost the only literary criticism of this John the Baptist beheading passage that I had ever encountered was commentary on its rambling and irrelevant character, standing out as a curious out-of-place anomaly in the otherwise consistently terse pre-Passion narratives in Mark’s Gospel. The only exception to this pattern that I can recall at the moment is Dennis MacDonald’s linking it with popular stories of the murder of King Agamemnon (on his return from the Trojan War) by his wife Clytemnestra.

So in the absence of $130 to spare on Iersel, here are a few initial observations that might give reason to see this detailed anecdote as more meaningful than rambling after all: (more…)

2010/04/07

John the Baptist, the strangest of prophets

Filed under: Gospel of Mark — Neil Godfrey @ 9:30 pm
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John the Baptist
Image by Lone Primate via Flickr

Prophets serve a literary function throughout the Old Testament. Their role is to demonstrate to readers/hearers of the word the stubborn rebellious hearts of Israel in history, and through that mechanism to show the greatness of the mercy of God who promises to love and restore such wretches in the end.

They are worked into the plot to suffer rejection by their own, persecution, mockery and sometimes martyrdom. Their loyal followers are always the few. And their authors always ensure they perform their assigned roles as foils for Israel to the letter.

One of these, Elijah, was prophesied to come again.

But there is the strangest of twists. When he does “come again”, the people are expected to actually listen to him this time. And the people do listen to him. Nothing like it had happened since the Ninevites repented at the preaching of Jonah.

Historical reading destroys the story

Mark tells us that the whole of Judea and Jerusalem came out to be baptized (Mark 1:5), so we must presume they were all prepared as per the prophecy. To deny this by suggesting Mark is merely exaggerating is to miss the point of the story and the author’s portrayal of the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi. Trying to historicize the tale merely destroys it. Mark is creating an ideal scene here, one as ideal as that of the survival in the wilderness with wild beasts and angels. All the land of Judea and those of Jerusalem went out confessing their sins. Picture an ideal Israel following Moses into the wilderness, or all of Israel repenting at the preaching of Elijah.

Elijah is promised to prepare the way of Israel for God — lest God comes and strikes the earth with a curse (Malachi).

We must presume he succeeded through John the Baptist, because when God came in his Son, it was the Son of God who was cursed, thus sparing the earth (or land of Israel – at least for a generation).

Getting prepared — then waiting

But how did he, in John the Baptist, prepare the way for God? How do we see the preparedness of these people in action?

I used to think it was a narrative failing of Mark that he had the people prepared for Jesus in the opening verses of the Gospel but in the very next encounters with “the people” they fail to recognize him. Someone should have tapped me on the shoulder to wake me up and notice that the people who were prepared, as per the prophecy, were those connected with the Temple, the people of Judea and Jerusalem.

When Jesus came he did not go to those people of Judea and Jerusalem straight away, but went instead to people of Galilee.

Jesus does not come to these people of Judea and Jerusalem just yet. Mark constructs a kind of inclusio setting for his gospel. The scene opens with the people of Judea and Jerusalem, and will close with the same people. In the meantime, however, Jesus bypasses them and works with others in Galilee. His time is not yet. The people of Judea and Jerusalem have been prepared, but Jesus won’t come to them until his grand entrance in Mark 11. When his time does draw near, the reader is privileged with a vision of the transfigured Jesus, and three prophecies herald his personal doom and salvation.

Having been prepared (at least within the narrative’s frame of reference — it is not historical realism), the people of Jerusalem welcome Jesus in to their city with hopes of the restoration of the Kingdom of David. When questioned over his authority to do the things he was doing there, Jesus reminds them he is acting on the authority of John the Baptist who prepared them for his entry and “sudden coming to the temple”. A leper opens his house for him and an anonymous woman prepares him for burial (Mark 11:3-8).

Saving the land from a curse

The crowds are a narrative device. The author is attempting to create a narrative that can be seen as a fulfillment of prophecy, and is consequently forced into a few inconsistencies. But the overall intended impact works, nonetheless. So the crowds are also there to call for Jesus’ crucifixion. In so doing, Jesus is the one who is cursed (Mal. 4:5-6), and Elijah is once again invoked by the narrator at that moment (Mark 15:35-36).

The land is saved from the curse, at least for the time being. Later it will be the remnant who are saved (Mark 13:20), as is always the case throughout the Old Testament writings of Israel’s failures and restorations.

Story, not history

There is nothing historical about John the Baptist in Mark’s Gospel. (One is entitled to think of an historical JB elsewhere if one likes, but Mark’s character is entirely literary.) As Paula Fredriksen writes in another context:

Actual history rarely obliges narrative plotting so exactly.

One criterion sometimes used against historicity is that of fulfilled prophecy (see Robert Funk’s criteria):

Anything based on prophecy is probably a fiction.

And John the Baptist and his role in Mark’s Gospel is a paradigmatic fulfillment of the prophecy of the Elijah to come. John, like Elijah, lives in the wilderness and by a river there. Like Elijah, he also wears a hairy prophet’s garment and a leather belt. And like Elijah, he calls for repentance.

He does fit the literary prophet paradigm by having his head chopped off. But he also, unlike the other prophets, has the unique role of being listened to by the people of Israel who repent at his message. This prophet had to fulfill Malachi for the most coherent way to introduce Jesus.

So both in his conformity to type and in his exceptionality of function, he is the literary tool of the Gospel author.

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2010/03/04

Engaging E. P. Sanders point by point: John the Baptist

John the Baptist

Image by Sacred Destinations via Flickr

Of John the Baptist Professor E.P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism) writes:

That John himself was an eschatological prophet of repentance is clearly implied in Josephus’s account. Further, the depiction of John and his message in the Gospels agrees with Josephus’s view: the preaching in the desert; the dress, which recalled Elijah; the message of repentance in preparation for the coming judgment. These features correctly pass unquestioned in New Testament scholarship. (p. 92)

Associate Professor James McGrath called on anyone sceptical of the historical Jesus to engage a scholar like Sanders point by point (and cited Jesus and Judaism specifically) and see if they can arrive at different conclusions for historicity.

I have already covered the point in Sanders’ own chapter 1, the Temple Action of Jesus. Here I look at just a small detail, but one about which Sanders makes some remarkably strong assertions about historicity and even external controlling evidence for historicity.

Compare what Sanders writes above with the actual account of Josephus that Sanders says supports everything he says. From Josephus.org:

Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and was a very just punishment for what he did against John called the baptist. For Herod had him killed, although he was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God, and having done so join together in washing. For immersion in water, it was clear to him, could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions. And when others massed about him, for they were very greatly moved by his words, Herod, who feared that such strong influence over the people might carry to a revolt — for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise — believed it much better to move now than later have it raise a rebellion and engage him in actions he would regret.

And so John, out of Herod’s suspiciousness, was sent in chains to Machaerus, the fort previously mentioned, and there put to death; but it was the opinion of the Jews that out of retribution for John God willed the destruction of the army so as to afflict Herod.

How much of what Sanders’ says is “correctly unquestioned” really “agrees with Josephus”, as he clearly infers.

The evidence for John being an eschatalogical prophet?

Read the Antiquities passage again and you will see it is simply not there. There is not a breath of a hint that John was an eschatalogical prophet. But Sanders knows this, so why does he say “that John himself was an eschatological prophet of repentance is clearly implied in Josephus’s account”?

That John was an eschatological prophet is less clear in Josephus, who here as elsewhere probably downplays eschatalogical features. (p.371)

Sanders seems to miss the axial point here. The reason Josephus downplays eschatalogical features, if he does indeed do that here, is because he makes it clear elsewhere he is personally viscerally opposed to such rebellious notions. If he suspected as much of John the Baptist how could he possibly have spoken about him favourably, without a hint of censure at any point at all?

But what evidence is there here in Josephus that such expectations are played down at all? There is no hint of any such expectations in John’s teaching according to Josephus. In the Gospels scholars often claim that Matthew and Luke and John downplay the scene of the baptism of Jesus in Mark’s gospel by (a) having Jesus either apologize for it (Matthew) or (b) not linking Jesus’ baptism with John (Luke) or (c) not mentioning the baptism of Jesus (John). But in Josephus we have no evidence to suggest to us that Josephus had any notion of John being an eschatological prophet.

So why does Sanders claim that Josephus implies that he did preach an eschatological message? Answer:

[Josephus] writes that Herod had him executed because he feared that trouble would result. Baptism and piety do not account for that reaction, and a message of national redemption is thus made probable. (p.371)

Look at Sanders’ reasoning here. He rejects the narrative of Josephus as we have it because it is implausible. It reads, just like the gospels, as a fairy tale. The gospel narrative of John’s death is just as plausible as the reason we read in Josephus, and both reasons are quite similar to each other. Herod fears the very popular John denouncing him for his sins, so has him arrested.

Thus in Herod’s motive for arresting John, Josephus and the gospels closely agree. But Sanders does not find this reason plausible in either tale.

Rather than ask the question, then, about the veracity of Josephus’s portrait of John, Sanders seeks to save his historicity by conjuring up an element from the gospels: that John was preaching the end of the present age and a new age of judgment to come.

Sanders then claims, with dizzying circularity, that the Josephus account supports the Gospel narrative!

(more…)

2009/11/27

When a nobody Jesus became spirit possessed

Filed under: Gospel of Mark,Jesus — Neil Godfrey @ 12:52 pm
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Mark, the earliest of our canonical gospels, does not simply omit the details about Jesus before his baptism, but indirectly informs readers that nothing like the birth and boyhood stories we read in the gospels of Matthew and Luke could possibly have happened. Mark is clear: Jesus was a nobody until the day he was baptized by John.

He did not spend is youth travelling to the British Isles. He did not astonish his family or neighbours by turning clay birds into living sparrows or miraculously extending timber beams to help his father’s carpentry business. His birth was not marked by angelic visits to shepherds in the countryside or rich foreign elites paying his parents a visit. No one knew about angels or pious elderly folk at the Temple making public pronouncements about his destiny. He at no time as a boy demonstrated to the learned men of the cloth any astonishing wisdom. He was just an ordinary bloke like everyone else.

That’s why Mark says his mother and family thought he needed to be taken off and given a good lie down after he started becoming a bit of a public spectacle. Mark 3:21, 31-32

And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself. . . .

There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee.

Mark 3:21, 31-32

And it’s why all those who had lived with him and known him all his life thought it a bit over the top that he should start talking and acting as if he was somehow any different from them:

And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; . . . .

And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?

And they were offended at him.

Mark 6:1-3

And it is also why no-one seems to have bothered to collect “traditions” or details about anything remarkable in his pre-baptism life from former neighbours and relatives. (The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are clearly imaginative adaptions of pre-existing biblical and extra-biblical stories.)

So Who Is This Really?

But of course this raises another question about the nature of Jesus in the gospels, or at least in the earliest gospel. The question of “Who Is This?” permeates Mark’s gospel.

Jesus’ is introduced in Mark’s gospel in a secret scene known only to God and the readers. No other characters in the story know anything about the Holy Spirit falling into Jesus (not “upon” him, as in Matthew) and driving him into the wilderness, and certainly none hears the voice from heaven pronouncing his identity. The only characters in Mark’s gospel who know who Jesus really is are God and the demons. Only Jesus (and the reader) sees the heavens parting and only Jesus hears the voice (Mark 1:9-11).

His public entrance comes only after the curtain falls on John’s opening act. From then on people begin to ask, Who and what is this? People begin to talk about him far and wide.

And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him. And immediately his fame spread abroad throughout all the region round about Galilee.

Mark 1:27-28

And ditto throughout chapters 2, 3, 5, 6 . . . .

Some say he his Elijah, and some John the Baptist. Following a chapter by Norman R. Petersen in Randal Argall’s For a later generation : the transformation of tradition in Israel, early Judaism, and early Christianity, “Elijah, the Son of God, and Jesus: Some Issues in the Anthropology of Characterization in Mark“, anyone familiar with the popular literature and mythical memes of the day would be reminded here of divine beings coming down to act among mortals by appearing in the bodies of known people. (more…)

2008/10/26

John the Baptist according to his followers today (the Mandaeans)

Filed under: Religion — Neil Godfrey @ 3:46 pm
Tags: ,

Another recent gem on Australia’s Radio National program, Encounter, 5 October 2008, were interviews with Mandaeans (followers of John the Baptist) describing their lives and challenges since the invasion of Iraq. Mandaean scholars also discussed some of the Mandaean beliefs about their own origins and practices.

The transcript of the program is available
here.

According to the Encounter transcript, Mandaean belief is that John the Baptist:

  • was not Jewish, but originated among Medean (think Medes, near Iran/Persia) immigrants in Palestine
  • was whisked back to Medea at his birth by angels in order to be enlightened
  • returned to baptize at the Jordan
  • baptized by day and preached by night for 42 years
  • not in the transcript, but from the wikipedia, Mandaean literature has John dying at the moment he touched an angel

This is according to the Haran Gawaita, a Mandaean text dating at least from the 6th century, and possibly from the 3rd century.

Of course this historical view leads to interesting questions:

  1. some have given reasons to think that the John the Baptist references in Josephus were no more original than the Jesus references (e.g. Zindler);
  2. if there was a John the Baptist who was executed around the period of Jesus, and he had been at work 42 years, then we may have an(other) explanation for some of the earliest Christian art depicting John the Baptist as an old man when he baptized a very young Jesus;
  3. or if there was a John the Baptist who had been at work 42 years, much of that time post-Jesus, then we have another reason to date the gospels very late, well beyond living memory of such;
  4. we have an analog to Matthew’s story of enlightened individuals coming from the East to welcome the Christ;
  5. or best of all, maybe we begin to find an answer to Joseph Campbell’s question about the coincidence of finding at Jordan an individual who bore the name of the Mesopotamian god (Ea of Water, Oannes) associated with the ritual he taught.

Some late Christian literature (the Pseudo-Clementine — also from 3rd century) is also consistent with the Mandaean belief that John the Baptist was a gnostic teacher.

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