J. McGrath Reviews The First Christian Believer (R. Nir)

 

 

Reviews of the Enoch Seminar 2020.02.03

 

Rivka Nir. The First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2019. ISBN: 978-1-910928-55-4. Pp. 300. $45. Hardback.

 

James McGrath
Butler University

 

Rivka Nir’s book The First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist offers a challenge to those who utilize the Gospels and other early Christian sources, and even Josephus’ brief account, in an effort to reconstruct the activity and message of John the Baptist. Whatever its shortcomings (and there are some significant ones, as this review will make clear) the overall message of the book is one that scholars of both ancient Judaism and Christian origins most certainly ought to take to heart, namely that the John we encounter in the New Testament and elsewhere first and foremost serves the aims and interests of Christian authors and their theologies. Given how much New Testament scholarship has emphasized the extent to which the Gospels tell us about later Christian perspectives rather than directly providing access to the historical figure of Jesus, the information about John the Baptist in the Gospels has, it must be admitted, continued to be treated with relative naiveté. Historians have also sometimes veered too far in the other direction, most importantly in failing to recognize where the direction of influence is likely to run from Jesus to the Gospel authors and other later Christians rather than vice versa. In the same manner, historians interested in John the Baptist must take seriously not only the Christian desire to have John point to Jesus, but also John’s influence on Jesus his erstwhile disciple.

Breaking with the scholarly consensus, Nir assumes a dichotomy between Christianity and a “mainstream” or “orthodox” Judaism. This perhaps more than anything else causes problems for her arguments, not only for those who do not share her assumptions but also simply in terms of their coherence and consistency. Nir is adamant that John’s baptism as depicted in the New Testament is at odds with the immersions to remove impurity practiced by the Pharisees and Essenes, however much it also may have resemblances and connections to those (p. 101). Nir concludes that John’s baptism was rather understood as a substitute for sacrifice (pp. 51-65, 258). This seems quite plausible if not indeed probable. However, this scarcely puts John in harmony with the dominant Christian tradition or its practice of baptism. It is precisely for reasons such as these that historians have judged John, as he is depicted in the Gospels, to be a figure with some continuity with and influence upon Jesus, and at the same time a figure who reflects an outlook that led John and at least some of his followers to have doubts about the direction Jesus and his followers took things.

Nir states that she is not questing for the historical John (p. 25), surveying instead the literary figure as depicted in the New Testament and in Josephus with a view to problematizing such a quest. Her thesis is summarized well in the book’s introduction when she writes (p. 28), “the Christian dimension of the John traditions is not some removable external layer. Whatever we are told about John, how he looked, the baptism he instituted, the geographical arena of his activity, the speeches he made, the account of his birth and death, become understandable, in all their isolated details and their integration into a whole picture, only against the background of Christian theology.” John is, according to Nir, rewritten as a spokesperson for Christianity, even in Josephus. This point is probably the most controversial of the book’s conclusions, and it is the focus of the book’s first chapter. Nir acknowledges the presence of typically Josephan vocabulary in the passage in the Antiquities that mentions John, but considers this not to count against her view that it is an interpolation, since a forger would be familiar with and seek to mimic Josephus’ way of writing. On the other hand, vocabulary that she judges to be non-Josephan, in particular the term “baptism” and its cognates, is particularly important in her argument. At this point Nir’s case becomes circular and problematic, in ways that prove to be a perennial feature throughout the volume. Nir highlights how the terminology of “baptism” distinguishes John’s practice from immersions for purification practiced in Judaism in that era, and aligns instead with the vocabulary used by Christians for their rather different immersion practice. This could indeed be due to Christian interpolation into or redaction of the text of Josephus. However, it could also be due to the terminology having been used by John and/or by others about him, which then also influenced Jesus and/or his followers. Only if one could first determine that John’s practice was not distinct from and interpreted as having a different significance from existing ablutions in Judaism, could one judge the terminology to reflect Christian retrojection onto John as opposed to John’s influence on Christianity.[1]

Nir discusses the possibility that John’s baptism was a repeated rite (without mentioning that this continues to be the baptismal practice of the Mandaeans), and that it may have been understood as a substitute for sacrifice. She acknowledges that John’s baptism as interpreted in Josephus is at odds with the understanding of baptism in some early Christian sources, including Paul. This, however, Nir considers to indicate that the interpolator was engaged in a debate with other Christians about the significance of baptism. Once again, this is possible, but by no means necessary, and it is unclear why the possibility that it reflects a disagreement of the historical John with later Christian practice should not be considered at least an equally plausible explanation, if not indeed a simpler and more likely one than the one Nir favors.

The remaining chapters focus on the New Testament, sources in which there is no doubt that the authorship is by Christians. The first of these explores the idea of John as Elijah and of Elijah as forerunner to the Messiah. The latter idea is not evidenced in our earliest Jewish sources, and Nir argues on that basis that it is an idea that originated in Christianity, or at the very least within the circles that gave rise to it (p. 90). Here once again one feels obligated to observe that John’s circle was the circle from which the Jesus movement is supposed to have emerged, and thus the influence might run in the other direction. Be that as it may, Nir makes the case that later Jewish sources that contain the idea of Elijah as forerunner of messiah may be influenced by and responding to Christianity, rather than providing evidence that this was an already-existing Jewish perspective which influenced Christianity. She also suggests that the stories about Elijah, Ahab, and Jezebel may have inspired the Gospel accounts about John, Herod, and Herodias. The third chapter focuses on the geographical milieu of John’s activity according to the New Testament. Here Nir explicitly acknowledges the possibility of a historical kernel (pp. 101-102), but nonetheless views the tradition as primarily reflecting Christian theological concerns. The Jordan lacks the theological significance in Judaism that it takes on in Christianity. In studying this material Nir highlights themes and intertextual echoes that are often overlooked, such as Luke’s greater interest in Abraham and Lot than one finds in the other Gospels (p.115). Chapter 4 seeks to demonstrate that John’s message of repentance is in fact a version of the Christian message. Chapter 5 turns attention from the Synoptic Gospels to the Gospel of John. Chapter 6 brings Luke’s infancy story about John to the center of attention, highlighting among other things the distinctiveness of the phrase Christos Kyrios in the announcement of the good news to the shepherds in Luke (pp. 221-222). Nir understands the perspectives of Elizabeth and Zechariah as portrayed in Luke to be Christian ones. Chapter 7 treats John’s martyrdom as patterned on Christian martyrdom. While acknowledging similarities to the long line of Jewish martyrs who gave their lives rather than disobey Torah, Nir notes that John is depicted as instead a provocateur who is executed because he criticized the ruler for not obeying Torah.

The conclusion (p. 258) uses language that highlights the tension that runs throughout Nir’s book. On the one hand Nir writes, “In this book, I have attempted to prove that the figure of John the Baptist, as reflected in all our available sources, is filtered through a Christian prism.” Yet on the other hand she says, “Examination of the concepts, ideas and worship at the focus of the traditions about John the Baptist and their comparison with beliefs and ideas of first-century CE Jewish world expose a clear and solid line separating Judaism from the world of ideas and beliefs of Christianity from its inception.” I am certain that most readers can see the problem immediately. When Nir decides from the outset that anything said about John (or about any other Jewish figure or source) that resembles Christianity is a Christian distortion, this assumes what she needs to prove. She makes no case against the consensus of scholarship about ancient Judaism, namely that Christianity, Pharisaism, the Essenes, and John the Baptist and his movement, among others, were all part of a diverse Judaism in which all of the aforementioned individuals and groups shared elements in common and at the same time disagreed with one another. Instead, she simply treats this as axiomatic. When Nir writes (p. 266) that, judged in terms of the identifiers central to the parting of the ways (Torah, election, temple), John “is presented as a Christian rather than a Jew,” Nir is assuming that Christians of the sort that the New Testament authors were could not simultaneously be Jews. To simply impose this viewpoint upon the relationship of John to a movement that historians judge to have been influenced by him is to beg the question. Moreover, even if Nir were right that there was a normative or mainstream Judaism in this period, and certain phenomena like Christianity were by definition outside its borders more or less from the outset, it still would not be clear why John could not be another such figure beyond the fringe of orthodoxy. Nir is not wrong (except perhaps with regard to Josephus) that Christian authors refract John through a prism. But the sharp line that she perceives between Christianity and Judaism represents something within the prism she herself brings to the evidence, rather than something that emerges from the evidence itself.

Nevertheless, in making the circular argument that she does, Nir inadvertently helps bring a crucially important question into focus. How much of the similarity between John and Christianity is due to Christian authors representing John as “the first Christian believer,” and how much is due to John’s influence on Christianity? We may never be able to answer that question with great confidence, but it is worth asking nonetheless, in a more explicit fashion than most scholars have in the past, whether they were working on the literary or the historical John. Nir’s book thus provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on the nature of historical and literary study of ancient sources and the relationship between two approaches. From a purely literary perspective, Nir’s claim about the New Testament authors is banal. It almost goes without saying that the Gospel authors were Christians and their depiction of John as forerunner of Jesus is offered from a Christian perspective and in service of the elevation of Jesus. The fact that Nir considers her thesis more significant than that suggests that she is, after all, interested in historical questions, her protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, and this has probably already become clear to readers of this review. For it to be possible to judge John as a figure crafted or thoroughly rewritten so as to represent a purely Christian perspective, as over against a Jewish one of his own, one must ask historical questions. When historians and other scholars using historical-critical methods have done that in relation to the material about John the Baptist in Josephus, the New Testament, and elsewhere, the majority have concluded that there are glimpses of a historical John that become visible even when refracted through a Christian lens. Nir’s book provides much that will prove useful to those engaged in such a quest for the historical John. However, her book does not provide a satisfactory answer to such historical questions, nor a satisfactory methodology for pursuing those answers, to the extent that she addresses either.

There are what appear to be occasional errors of fact in the book, where one wonders whether it might not be a mistranslation or a misunderstanding on the reader’s part rather than a genuine error on the part of the author. For instance, Nir appears to claim (p. 97) that Luke removes Elijah from his version of the transfiguration, which is not the case. Likewise, Nir refers (p. 184) to the Pseudo-Clementine literature as referring to an ongoing group of disciples of John the Baptist, only to state immediately after that “church tradition nowhere provides any hint of the existence of such a sect.” It is hard to know what to make of such instances, but they are untypical of the book as a whole. However much one might disagree with Nir’s conclusions or take issue with her methodology, the book as a whole is characterized by attention to detail and thoroughness.

Those who are familiar with the reviewer’s work on the subject will be unsurprised to learn that I am disappointed by Nir’s failure to make use of or discuss of Mandaean sources. On the one hand, given the way Nir treats the Pseudo-Clementine and other such Christian literature from centuries after John’s time, this omission might not be surprising. However, given Nir’s willingness to treat later Rabbinic sources as representative of something like a Jewish orthodoxy or mainstream in the first century, the possibility that Mandaean sources might have something to contribute ought at the very least to have been discussed. And if Josephus is to be judged a source of knowledge only about a Christian interpolator’s view of John, then the possibility that Mandaean sources might preserve the only information about John not filtered through a Christian lens makes a consideration of them all the more essential. If nothing else, however, they deserved at least a mention, if not more substantive attention, in a work whose conclusion makes a claim about “all our available sources” (p. 258).

Despite its shortcomings, when Nir remains focused on a literary approach, the lens she brings to Christian sources often highlights interesting and neglected features of early Christian literature, such as intertextual connections and themes connected to specific characters. For this reason, there is a great deal in the book that will be of interest to those who study early Christian literature even if their work does not focus on the place of John the Baptist in that literature. And for those whose work does focus on John, Nir places the burden of proof squarely on the shoulders of those who conclude that a historical John can be glimpsed through the Christian prism of our Christian sources. It is we who need to make the case that that is true in any given detail. If it is not ultimately as difficult as Nir might wish her readers to believe, neither is it as straightforward as a great many others seem inclined to assume. In conclusion, in the very act of responding to Nir with counterarguments, scholars of ancient Judaism, including early Christianity, may find that her unconventional approach brings more sharply into focus the crucial yet often neglected role John the Baptist needs to play in making sense of the diverse landscape of ancient Judaism, of which he was arguably a bigger part than most have heretofore realized.

 

[1] Nir raises the possibility that the material about John now found in Josephus might derive from the lost work of Hegesippus, a source which itself appears to represent a reworking of Josephus’ writings and whose authorial attribution may be a garbled form of Josephus. The fact that some church fathers attribute material to Hegesippus that we find in Josephus thus has an explanation other than that Hegesippus was a separate author, from which someone later drew the information about John the Baptist to interpolate it into Josephus. Whatever the case, little should be made of quotation for a lost work which seems at the very least to have made use of Josephus’ works, if not indeed been an expanded version of said works.

James McGrath

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