Friday, August 6, 2010

The Mythical John the Baptist

I think we have had a number of platforms for the so-called 'mythicist position' at this site. I have to admit I have some discomfort with the rationale behind this argument even though I accept probably more firmly than most here that the oldest traditions in Christianity all held that Jesus came down from heaven like a angelic 747 airliner. He had no humanity at all. He was wholly divine.

The heavenly Ἰησοῦς or Isu of the Marcionites and the Manichaean tradition is in my estimation the original Jesus. The man Jesus who had a mother Mary was again invented in a later period. How this was done and for what purpose is anyone's guess. Even though you'd think that my belief in this part of the 'mythicist' equation would make me a card carrying member I personally happen to dislike any argument attached to a greater polemic.

Jesus was originally conceived as a divine hypostasis - so what?

I don't know how you can 'disprove' this wholly divine Jesus any more than you can Zeus, Shiva, Yahweh or any of the other gods venerated by groups of human beings in organized religion. The truth that was associated with Jesus was mathematical, spiritual, theological and eschatological. I don't know how and why anyone would want to ridicule them. I think they're beautiful, just like I think Church music is beautiful. But that's just me, I guess.

In any event, there is one character in the gospel who is surely a 'fiction,' a made up historical figure who almost never gets any attention in these forums and that is - John the Baptist.

It has always struck me as odd that someone who alleged "all of Judea, including all the people of Jerusalem, went out to see and hear" [Mark 1:5] is completely unknown to the rabbinic literature. It is even stranger that despite the fact that this John the Baptist is claimed to have baptized people in or near Samaritan territory and that his body was originally buried in the capital of Sebaste, the Samaritan tradition knows nothing about 'John the Baptist.'

Jews and Samaritans of the medieval period couldn't help but run into Christian claims about this figure. Yet they had nothing to add to the discussion because quite frankly they didn't know anything about him.

The references in Josephus are of course problematic because the material was edited and preserved originally exclusively within Christian libraries. In many Christian traditions the writings of Josephus have a canonical status equal to the earliest Church Fathers, in other words just below that of the New Testament scriptures. There are also the unmistakable signs that the editor of the Luke-Acts corpus knew or was involved with the final redaction of the Josephan corpus. Certain passages in Josephus and Luke resemble one another so closely that a statistical analysis can be used to suggest that they were written by the same person.

Indeed we shouldn't claim that John the Baptist is witnessed by 'all' Christians as the Marcionite gospel did not have any of the early parts of our narrative where John is introduced and goes on to baptize Jesus. I find it highly unlikely therefore that there ever was a 'John the Baptist' in the Marcionite tradition. Nothing that survives from the writings of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Origen or any of the other references to the Marcionites in later Church Fathers demonstrates that they ever accepted the mythical figure of 'John the Baptist.'

The argument that the Mandaeans witness 'John the Baptist' is quite inaccurate. They certainly know a baptizing John who has a mother named Elizabeth and a father named Zechariah. But the situation is more complicated than it might first appear.

It has been argued that the Mandaeans merely identified themselves as 'the tradition of John the Baptist' as a means of self-protection while they were ruled by Christian and Muslim overlords. The journey of Mandaeans from Palestine to the marshes of Iraq happened over a long period.

The manuscript of the Haran Gawaitha was purchased by Drower in the last century. The text tells of a time when the Nasurai (the HG never refers to the community as 'Mandaeans' or employs the Persian loan word 'manda') lived in what is now northern Iraq, in Haran (in what was ancient Osrhoene). Most of the experts I have ever read understand that the text preserve a more ancient version of the Mandaean belief system.

In the Haran Gawaitha and the John Book, John is above all else a figure who prophesied the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem. So the Haran Gawaitha:

And in the great Jordan a pure seed was formed... and came and was sown in the womb of 'Nisbai, so that from it a child might come into being, a prophet of the great Father of Glory, praised be His name! in order to destroy the building of Ruha and Adonai.

This even becomes clearer in what follows in the Haran Gawaitha where I have always felt it describes both the events surrounding the destruction of the temple AND the attempted bar Kochba revolt. John is clearly described according to my understanding as living until the destruction of the temple. The narrative makes clear that his life mission is to destroy the 'house of Ruha (Spirit) and Adonai (Lord). The narrative of his life that follows seems to me to be more reminiscent of John the disciple than John the Baptist. This is especially true if we identify Anus-Uthra (Enos of Light) as a recasting of Jesus after the two communities split apart:

and to propagate a race in the House which Ruha and her seven sons built, so that she should not have dominion... in the midst of the worlds, and he shall be called Yahia-Yuhana, the prophet of Kusta , the apostle... who dwelt at the city of Jerusalem; a healer whose medicine was Water of Life, a healer that healeth... (evil spirits?) which go forth from Ruha and Adonai to destroy the physical body.

... Then... when the boy was born Anus'-'Uthra came by command of the great Father of Glory and they came before Hibil-Ziwa by command of the great Father of Glory and travelled over deserts towards Mount Sinai and proceeded ... towards a community called Ruha's that is situated near the place where the Ark was built (...?) and she will be a deliverer (midwife) to the child ... into Parwan, the white mountain, an earthly place. And (in?) that place the fruit and sky are large. There ... (groweth?) the Tree which nourisheth infants . And they took back Sufnai the lilith to a (?) place so that when they should perform a living baptism to purify the child, the apostle of Kusta, Yahia-Yuhana...

And they did not alter the order or commands which emanated from the presence of the great Father of Glory... Sufnai the lilith took him (the child) before the eyes of his mother fell upon him... at the order of Anus'-'Uthra. And they mounted up towards Parwan, the white mountain... (a place where) fruit and sky is (are?) large. There they set down Yahia near the Tree which nourisheth nurslings... Then Sufnai the lilith returned to her place. When thirty days had passed, Hibil-Ziwa came at the command of the great first Father of Glory, and he came to the Median hill-country and sent Anus'-'Uthra to Bihram, son of 'uthras and to the Median mountains. And they took Bihram from the Median hills and went... (to Parwan?) and performed baptism and baptised the child beside the Tree that nourisheth nurslings. And (when) he was seven years old, Anus'-'Uthra came and wrote for him the A, Ba, Ga, Da.

... and, until he was twenty-two years old, he taught him about all nasirutha

... then, at the command of the great Father of Glory he set the crown on him and seated him beside himself, until they came to the city of Jerusalem amongst the community which Ruha founded... all belonged to her and to her seven sons except (those from?) the Median hills , Aharan ...

... Hibil-Ziwa, of the Median hills, upon which they wandered from mountain to mountain. ... mountain to the city of the Nasoraeans is a distance of six thousand parasangs; it is called the enclave ('hdara') of Hibil-Ziwa... Then Yahia-Yuhana took the jordan and the medicine Water (of Life)... and he cleansed lepers, opened (the eyes of) the blind and lifted the broken (maimed) to walk on their feet ... by the strength of the lofty King of Light - praised be his Name! - and gave speech and hearing to all who sought (him). And he was called in the world " envoy of the High King of Light " - praised be his Name! - (even) at the (very) abode and building of Ruha and Adonai and her seven sons.

And he taught disciples and proclaimed the Call of the Life in the fallen House (Temple?). Forty-two years (he dwelt) therein, and then his Transplanter looked upon him and he arose with his Transplanter, praised be his name!

I can't help but see possible parallels to the Christian interest in John the disciple. But most telling of all is the number 'forty two years' until the destruction of the temple. This is recited by both Clement and Origen (and thus the whole Alexandrian tradition) as the number of years from Jesus's ministry (and the discipleship of John/Mark) to the end of the temple.

In Book 1 of his Stromateis, at 145, 5 (ed. O. Stählin), Clement states that forty-two years and three months separate the fall of Jerusalem (which happened in the summer of 70 C.E.) from the Passion. Origen mentions the same forty-two years, but with some reservation, in Against Celsus, at IV.22. In his Homily on Jeremiah, at XIV.13, Origen refers to the same forty-two years more assertively as the time separating year 15 of Tiberius from the fall of Jerusalem. Apparently, the assumption is that Jesus died in year 15 of Tiberius. This year date is mentioned in Luke 3:1, but not in direct connection with the event.

I see the reference to the Bar Kochba war cited in what follows when a number of 'sixty years' is cited to mark the beginning of a second attempt by the Jews to reestablish their temple (72 + 60 = 132 CE):

and a time arrived, sixty years after Yahia-Yuhana had departed the body ... the Jews, just as their former strength (returned?) to Ruha and Adonai, who became arrogant...Hence, after sixty years, Ruha and Adonai planned to erect... the fallen House (Temple?) and spoke to Moses the prophet and the children of Israel who had built the House (Temple)... Then they raised an idle cry against the tribes of Anus'-'Uthra, the Head of the Age, and shed their blood so that not a man of the disciples and Nasoraeans were left...

The point is clearly that John dies at the very time the temple was destroyed. Sixty years later it is understood that the Bar Kochba revolt occurred. The understanding of a slaughter of Nazarenes in Judea is paralleled in Christian sources of a mass slaughter of members of their religion in Palestine during the revolt. I think this is worth someone looking into more seriously.

My point is that since John is identified as having lived right until the destruction, he can't be John the Baptist. I think a better argument can be made that he is John the disciple. He might also be some other John connected with the destruction of the temple. But the bottom line is that there is no evidence for John the Baptist outside of sources preserved by the Christian tradition.

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.