Corporate Sin Post Script: Did The Historical Jesus Know John The Baptist? (My Last Blog Post For A Little While)

This will be my last post for a little while. I think Bradley will still be posting. I just wanted to share a few final thoughts on Corporate Sin.

Did The Historical Jesus Know John The Baptist?

Our first gospel Mark clues us in that his portrayal of John the Baptist serves a literary and theological agenda rather than an historical one.  For one thing, Mark invents a new reason for the baptizer’s death.  The historical baptizer was beheaded by Herod because of political reasons, not a holy man morally chastising/embarrassing someone that led to a girl asking for his head:

  • Jewish historian Josephus also relates in his Antiquities of the Jews that Herod killed John, stating that he did so, “lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his [John’s] power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise), [so Herod] thought it best [to put] him to death.” He further states that many of the Jews believed that the military disaster that fell upon Herod at the hands of Aretas, his father-in-law (Phasaelis’ father), was God’s punishment for his unrighteous behavior  Flavius Josephus. Jewish Antiquities XVIII, v, 2.

Mark is emphasizing the religious zealotry of his John who was a great religious leader but whose humiliating death was meaningless, in contrast to the earth shattering significance of Jesus’s death, or the avenging God in the Josephus death of the Baptizer account.  With Jesus the whole world abandoned and turned against him, but because of this his death meant everything. 

Mark portrays John the Baptist as the new and greater Elijah.  Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; as it is written in the prophets.” Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.) He then says John ate locusts and wild honey, the food of the wilderness in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on).  So, what Mark is actually doing is through mimesis/imitation/haggadic midrash indicating the greatness of John by making him greater than the great prophet Elijah, AND portraying Jesus as greater than Elijah’s successor and superior:  Elisha.

Price comments:

  • In view of parallels elsewhere between John and Jesus on the one hand and Elijah and Elisha on the other, some (Miller, p. 48) also see in the Jordan baptism and the endowment with the spirit a repetition of 2 Kings 2, where, near the Jordan, Elijah bequeaths a double portion of his own miracle-working spirit to Elisha, who henceforth functions as his successor and superior.

The point is that the wrongful humiliating death of John the Baptist in Mark in and of itself was meaningless (contrast the wrath of God against John’s murderer in Josephus, or Jesus’s death) and accomplished nothing, while the wrongful death of Jesus accomplished everything because he was the specially chosen Son of God who was denied the Davidic throne by the world and died in horrific torture and impalement as a criminal: to make conspicuous for the world their hidden satanically influenced sin nature.  Unlike with John in Mark, it is because humanity as a whole is guilty of Jesus’ abandonment, torture and execution that such guilt can be a catalyst for real world change.  Socrates’s death was successful, in that we generally no longer execute someone for being a gadfly/nuisance.

However, Mark’s John the Baptist figure is a critique of Plato’s Socrates with John in the Socratic role as the gadfly/nuisance, but whose death accomplishes nothing.  Though we think Socrates’s philosophy and death accomplished much, in Jesus’s time they did nothing to prevent the hell on earth of being under the imperial thumb of the Roman Empire that the Jews were experiencing.  And the death of the Baptizer in Mark oozes Greek literature and influence, not Just Socrates, but Homer, as Dennis MacDonald shows:

  • MacDonald (pp. 80-81, 176) shows how the story of John’s martyrdom matches in all essentials the Odyssey’s story of the murder of Agamemnon (3:254-308: 4:512-547; 11:404-434), even to the point that both are told in the form of an analepsis or flashback. Herodias, like Queen Clytemnestra, left her husband, preferring his cousin: Antipas in the one case, Aegisthus in the other. This tryst was threatened, in Clytemnestra’s case, by the return of her husband from the Trojan War, in Herodias’, by the denunciations of John. In both cases, the wicked adulteress plots the death of the nuisance. Aegisthus hosted a banquet to celebrate Agamemnon’s return, just as Herod hosted a feast. During the festivities Agamemnon is slain, sprawling amid the dinner plates, and the Baptizer is beheaded, his head displayed on a serving platter. Homer foreshadows danger awaiting the returning Odysseus with the story of Agamemnon’s murder, while Mark anticipates Jesus’ own martyrdom with that of John. The only outstanding difference, of course, is that in Mark’s version, the role of Agamemnon has been split between Herodias’ rightful husband (Philip according to Mark; another Herod according to Josephus) and John the Baptizer (Robert M Price).”

To be sure, this is all literary mimesis, and there is no reason to suppose the historical Jesus met the famous holy man John the Baptist.  Mark is lampooning the idea that God punishes the wicked as God supposedly does after the death of the Baptizer in the tradition Josephus is familiar with, because the world is evil and corrupt, and Satan being the god in charge of this world, 2 Cor 4:4.  Rather, justice must come about in other ways.  Enter Jesus.  We have a contrast in sacrifice.  On the one hand, we have in Mark the paradigmatically holy man John the Baptist who is willing to sacrifice himself in the name of righteousness, even angering a powerful enemy – yet such a death accomplishing nothing, and by contrast, Jesus sacrificing himself to open the eyes of those who persecuted and abandoned him (Rom 12:14; Matthew 5:44).  Hence, Jesus says “11 “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:11)

The mythologized Elijah-type John the Baptist of the Gospel of Mark is Socratic in that he was executed for being a gadfly or nuisance to the ruling class.  For Plato, the wrongful death of noble Socrates was meant as a catalyst for societal change.  But Mark’s response is Socrates still left a lot of work to be done because the noble Baptizer was also killed for being a nuisance in his Gospel.  Jesus, on the other hand is patterned after the actual John the Baptist Josephus knows who was killed because John was perceived as a political threat to Herod.  In mimesis style, the copy being greater than the original, Jesus was a direct threat to Caesar, declaring himself the son of God, not Caesar.  This is, of course, all literary themes and structures, so the historical Jesus is veiled behind them.  Paul has little narrative detail regarding the life of Jesus, and Mark is a sea of intra/intertextuality, so in many ways reconstructing Jesus’s life and works is a fool’s errand.  It is literary fun, though! Interestingly, just as Mark seems to be familiar with Josephus’s portrayal of John the Baptist in the Antiquities, Matthew seems to be inventing Matthew’s Jesus birth narrative by recapitulating Josephus’s account of the nativity of Moses, and so a late date for the gospels is plausible, no earlier than 93 CE as the date of Josephus’s Antiquities. Along these lines, Neil Godfrey argues:

  • IF that is so, then we are reminded of other passages in Josephus that seem to be echoed in the Gospel of Mark. The one most elaborately discussed is the Jesus ben Ananias who was brought before the authorities and dismissed as mad before being killed by the Romans. See Tale of Two Jesus’s (notes from Theodore Weeden) We also have Josephus (who is ben Matityahu) seeing three of his former acquaintances crucified, but still alive. He begged the Roman general to have them taken down. Two subsequently died but the third survived. The gospels speak of another “Josephus” (of Arimathea) having Jesus’ body, crucified with two others, taken down from the cross. Then there is Josephus’s list of signs signalling the end of Jerusalem with an emphasis on deception by false prophets. For an earlier discussion see The signs of the end in Josephus and Mark There are other suggestive links, too. Some involve considerable discussion to justify, some are open to a too free-wheeling association and lose their suggestiveness the more closely they are examined. The point: if Mark did know of both Jewish War and Antiquities, then he could not have written the gospel before the mid-90s. (Compare Earl Doherty’s dating of Mark in the 90s.) see: https://vridar.org/2020/12/10/another-pointer-towards-a-late-date-for-the-gospel-of-mark/

That John the Baptist in Mark is a literary device to foreshadow Jesus is well known by scholars.  One writer summarizes:

• John proclaims the need to repent. Jesus? Check (1:4, 15).
• John is arrested. Jesus? Big check (1:43; 6:17; 14:46, 48).
• John interests Herod; Jesus amazes Pilate (6:20; 15:5).
• Herod decapitates John under the pressure of his guests; Pilate crucifies Jesus under the pressure of the crowd (6:26; 15:5).
• John’s disciples bury his corpse in a tomb; Joseph buries Jesus’s body in a tomb (6:39; 15:46).

Yeah, we’re going to go ahead and say that John does not belong to himself. Instead, the whole course of his life points toward Jesus. That means Herod’s opinion that Jesus is John returned from the dead isn’t really without basis, even if Herod is wrong (6:16).

This will be my last time mentioning them, but I try to show in my trilogy of Modern Library essays that there is virtually nothing we can say about the historical Jesus except he was a historical guy his followers thought was wrongfully executed.  I also take the minority position that we can’t say Mark thought Jesus ever met John the Baptist.  This is interesting from the wiki page on the scholarly quest for the historical Jesus:

  • The portraits of Jesus that have been constructed through history using these processes have often differed from each other, and from the image portrayed in the gospel accounts.  Such portraits include that of Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, charismatic healer, Cynic philosopher, Jewish messiah, prophet of social change, and rabbi. There is little scholarly agreement on a single portrait, nor the methods needed to construct it, but there are overlapping attributes among the various portraits, and scholars who differ on some attributes may agree on others … There is widespread disagreement among scholars on the details of the life of Jesus mentioned in the gospel narratives, and on the meaning of his teachings. Scholars differ on the historicity of specific episodes described in the biblical accounts of Jesus, but almost all modern scholars consider his baptism and crucifixion to be historical facts

So yes, it’s a hot mess, but one last time on the topic of New Testament Hermeneutics,/Deconstruction, here are my unholy trinity of essays:

1) The Justified Lie by the Johannine Jesus in its Greco-Roman-Jewish Context

2) A Critique of the Penal Substitution Interpretation of the Cross of Christ

3) Jesus Mythicism: Moral Influence vs. Vicarious Atonement—and Other Problems

BONUS 1: Lots of related posts here by me at https://secularfrontier.infidels.org/ , where I’m one of the bloggers!

BONUS 2: Super John the Baptist fact: Near the beginning of the Gospel of John, John the Baptist says of Jesus: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  Notice he doesn’t say “the goats of God takes away your sin,” because the reference here is to the Passover lamb, not the Yom Kippur goats.  The Passover lamb is most famously known for dealing with corporate sin, specifically the Jews escaping the corrupt Egyptian society that was enslaving them.  The Passover lamb imagery is not connected to personal sin debt payment of Conservative Christianity (the Yom Kippur animals aren’t either).  That’s why John the Baptist points to Jesus taking away the sins of the world, not just my sins.  The problem of sin for the early Christians isn’t just an obsessive compulsive “putting on the full armor of God” to do spiritual warfare against Satan who is trying to tempt or discourage you as many conservative Christians now think, but also a profound responsibility to end things like systemic injustice (eg against women, other races, LGBTQ, etc).  Real original Christianity focused on love of Other: widow, orphan, stranger, and enemy, who many people today avoid as “undesirable.” James 2:14 says: 14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Surely that faith cannot save, can it? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.  For centuries Conservative Christians have believed in the imminent return of Jesus with the result that, since it is all about to end anyway, repenting and faith in a Penal Substitution cross that absolves them was all that mattered, personal salvation, and doing friendly Christianly things was present as an afterthought.  This is the exact opposite of Jesus who didn’t think of himself, but like Socrates before him went to a Moral Influence death: sacrificing themselves to un-cover and make conspicuous the hidden vileness of the world, and so being a catalyst for societal change and growth.  And look how we’ve grown!  Civilized society no longer gives capital punishment for being a nuisance/gadfly, or blasphemy, or having political aspirations.   But, there’s still a long way to go: Perhaps one day Climate Change will be front and center, while what the Accountant-in-Chief in the Oval Office is tweeting about “CNN reporting quality” will be of lesser importance.

“This literature forever elliptical, taciturn, cryptic, obstinately withdrawing, however, from all literature, inaccessible there even where it seems to go, the exasperation of a jealousy, that passion carried beyond itself; this would seem to be a literature for the desert or for exile (Jacques Derrida, Sauf Le Nom).”

  • ps Hopefully one day we will finally realize there is no God, and start living lives that are no longer about “my” salvation! Who is more noble?
  1. The person who does good because they expect reward and fear punishment

or

2. Someone for whom doing good is an end in itself