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Old 03-18-2010, 11:44 PM   #1
ApostateAbe
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Default Abe reviews Robert Price on John the Baptist and Josephus

On Toto's encouragement, I used the interlibrary loan to check out a book: The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man (or via: amazon.co.uk) by Robert M. Price. I was surprised to read near the beginning that Price is NOT an adherent to any theory that Jesus was mythical, and he is willing to grant the possibility that Jesus was a human being. He is apparently planted firmly in the mythicist camp, however, as he treats mythicist and hyper-skeptical speculations with the same seriousness as all other ideas in Biblical criticism, or more seriousness still. I thought about finishing the book and writing a review afterward, but the book condenses so many objectionable ideas that it would be best to focus on a few of them in order to most effectively evaluate them and express my concerns.

Here is an excerpt from pages 102-104:
If we consider John the Baptist as an important religious figure in his own right, what can we say of him? Not surprisingly, there is the possibility that he was not originally a historical figure. Arthur Drews floated the possibility that John (Greek: Ioannes) was a historicized version of the ancient fish god Dagon or Oannes, who was believed to have emerged from the waters (as John preaches beside the Jordan) to impart wisdom to humanity [endnote: Arthur Drews, The Christ Myth... pp. 120-22]. The biblical Joshua, son of Nun, goes back to a mythic god. "Nun" is not an attested proper name, but means "fish," Nun being the same as Oannes. Is it an accident that the New Testament Joshua (Jesus) is, religiously speaking, the son of Ionnes? If this speculation were correct, it would mean that the Baptist sect was already very ancient in New Testament times, a popular survival of the worship of gods long-ago interceded by the Jerusalem hierarchy. And, just as the ancient Joshua cult had been forced to demote its deity to the status of a mere hero in the face of growing Israelite monolatry, much later the Oannes cult thought it wiser to transmute its lord into a human preacher, at least for public consumption. (And who can guess what connection the Oannes cult might have had with early Christian "ichthus" sing of the fish?)

It might be thought a demerit against this theory that Josephus treats John the Baptist as a historical figure of the recent pas. But it is worth asking if the passage (Antiquities 18.5.2) is perhaps an interpolation, as some have suspected. I see two reasons to regard it so. First, the writer deems it a matter of disproportionate urgency to correct a sacramental interpretation of John's baptism: he "commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness toward one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the remission of some sins, but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness." [endnote: William Whiston, trans., The Works of Flavius Josephus...] What is this doing in the present context? Why would Josephus care about such niceties any more than Gallio did (Acts 18:14-15)? It sounds like sectarian theological hair-splitting, more at home in a Baptist or Christian setting. John Meagher [endnote: ...Five Gospels: An Account of How the Good News Came to Be... pp. 37-38.] believes that it came from the former, that Josephus derived this information from the Baptist sect of his own day, which had spread out into the Hellenistic world (cf. Acts 19:1-7). These latter-day Baptists had begun to reflect on the nature of baptism, their hallmark ritual, and they had come to rationalize it, precisely as Christian Baptists do today: baptism is not of itself a saving rite. That would be magic. Rather, it denotes a change of mind and heart, which is what really saves. These concerns came along with the rest of the information, says Meagher, from a Baptist source, hence their irrelevance in their present context in Josephus.

But I rather imagine Josephus would have edited out such extraneous information. I prefer to see the whole passage as an interpolation into Josephus by a Christian (or Baptist) who was trying to correct Mark by interpreting what he said about a "baptism for the forgiveness of sins" in a nonsacramental direction. (He may also have repudiated Mark's version of John's death, thinking that it let Herod Antipas off the hook, blaming the death on the scheming Herodias, and so offered a contrasting version, seen here.) My second reason for seeing it as an interpolation is the apparent presence of a redactional seam, a telltale sign of a copyist stitching in new material. Often an interpolation may be detected by parallel opening and closing sentences. This results from the copyist having to re-create the peg from which the continuation of the original narrative first hung. In this case, the passage begins with the words, "Now, some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly as a punishment of what he did against John." I am suggesting that this passage is the interpolator's paraphrase of the closing words of the passage: "Now, the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, as a mark of God's displeasure against him." The latter version would have been the original, speaking of Herod's general impiety, the former being the paraphrase that introduces John the Baptist by name, making the military defeat the punishment for John's ill treatment. So it may be that Josephus did not originally mention John at all.

But suppose John was a historical figure, as he very likely was. Even if one should hold to the view that Jesus was not a historical figure, he would not necessarily take John down with him, so to speak. Any way one views it, the connection between Jesus and John is secondary, an attempt to co-opt John's sect and absorb it into the early church by subordinating John to Jesus, as we shall soon see. Once it reached this point, it would scarcely matter if the figurehead of one sect were historical, the other mythical.
If John the Baptist "very likely was" a historical figure, then it seems Price would need a damned good reason for taking seriously the speculation that the Josephus passage was an interpolation. Why does this seem preposterous to me? The absurdity is reflected in Price's waffling on the identity of the interpolator: "I prefer to see the whole passage as an interpolation into Josephus by a Christian (or Baptist) who was trying to correct Mark..." (emphasis mine). If you are going to propose an interpolation, then it is extremely important that you give a profile of who did it. The interpolation is expected to reflect the motivations of the author. The motivations of a Christian is far different from the motivations of a Baptist. And Price gives two possible identities, perhaps to take all the cover he can, but it doesn't help, because both are preposterous.

The passage shows only the faintest glimmer of Christian influence ("...not in order to the remission of some sins..."), with little resemblance to the Christian accounts of John the Baptist, and absolutely no mention of Jesus himself, though John the Baptist was important to Christians only as he related to Jesus. A Christian interpolator would be interested in harmonizing John the Baptist with Jesus, the same as seen in the gospel accounts, not to draw lines of division.

That may leave the possibility of a follower of John the Baptist interpolating the passage, except that is equally absurd, if not more so, in light of the reality that there is absolutely no evidence that the Baptists did the sort of scribal activities as seen among early Christians, not with their own scriptures, the works of Josephus or anything else.

The gobsmackingly obvious solution is that Josephus really wrote it, and he sourced the information from the followers of John the Baptist.

So why take the proposition of Arthur Drews seriously?
  1. Because Josephus includes a seemingly trifling ideological division? There is a moderate possibility that Josephus would care that his intended readers would know such a thing (the same as differences among religious groups are important to observers today), and there is a vanishingly small possibility that a Christian interpolator would record such a thing, it being contrary to his apparent interest.
  2. Because there is a "redactional seam," an opening statement that resembles the closing statement? It would certainly help if there was an available comparison. The passage that we can identify as interpolation for certain--the Testimonium Flavianum--does not show that proposed pattern. Is it significantly less likely that Josephus would introduce and close a certain explanation with two statements of the same point?
I figure Price simply wants to minimize the historicity of Jesus. It seems more than a bit odd that Price would justify the mythicist speculation that the passage about John the Baptist in Josephus is an interpolation if John the Baptist "very likely was" a historical figure, especially since the speculation seems especially bone-headed. But, Price will go to lengths to give greater credit to his conclusion, as seen in his book title, to minimize the historicity of the canonical Christian accounts.

I have said this before, but I'll say it again: if you have chosen your conclusion, then you can easily fit the evidence to the conclusion. That is especially true in Biblical scholarship, where almost anything is possible. If need be, you can simply pull possibilities out of your ass and at least pretend that they are just as likely as the predominant competing explanation, and the partisans in your favor will just as easily accept them as effective rebuttals. For example, on page 121:
When you strip away the layers of edifying legend and controversial mythology, was Jesus baptized by John? A poll among New Testament scholars would no doubt yield a near-unanimous "yes" vote. The only item in the life story of Jesus considered equally secure is his crucifixion. And the reason for this is perfectly clear by now: the baptism was so embarrassing to Christians, both because it seems to subordinate Jesus to John and because it seems to cast Jesus as a repentant sinner, that the early church would never have fabricated it. Such reasoning is understandable, but it is also easily refuted, as long as one recalls that what offended one generation did not offend another. Mark seemingly had little enough trouble with a repenting Jesus. He appears not to have regarded himself "stuck" with the notion. Anyone who saw nothing amiss in it could have made it up if there were something useful in the story and there was. As some have suggested, the story may simply have originated as a cultic etiology to provide a paradigm for baptism: "Are you able to be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?"

And originally, Christians may have seen baptism by John as a credential, an authorization, even without an explicit endorsement of Jesus by John, in much the same way President Clinton cherished the videotape showing a youthful version of himself shaking hands with President Kennedy. There may well have been a period (or geographical areas) in which no Christians perceived the followers of John the Baptist as rivals, a period in which both men were venerated side by side in a larger "Essene" community.
What is wrong with these explanations? Well, mainly the lack of evidence. If you don't have evidence, then an unlikely explanation stays unlikely.

Price treats the seeming ambivalence of Mark as evidence for the lack of embarrassment, but it is an accepted principle of Biblical scholarship, following from a sociological principle, that earlier records are less likely to reflect theological prejudices than later records, because earlier records generally reflect a more accurate picture of events, whereas later records generally contain greater corruptions from biases emerging from years of rhetorical debate. We can not possibly expect that the author of Mark, when pressed on the point, would not feel awkward reporting that John was "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" and then John baptized Jesus with no further explanation. Matthew, however, does give a theological justification. Additionally, Matthew, Luke and John each make it abundantly clear that John is subservient to Jesus, and they give alternative purposes for John's baptism. Luke says that Jesus was baptized only after John was thrown in jail. Price's point about Mark actually hurts, not helps, his conclusion.

Our earliest records show that the greatest rivals of Christians were... other Christians, and Price is proposing that maybe there was a time that Christians got along with Baptists like a big happy family. Again, if there was evidence, then we take it seriously. If not, the explanation ought to be treated the same as any other doofus explanation meant only to make a conclusion seem possible.

Here is my solution: maybe John really did baptize Jesus. There is nothing unlikely about that (almost all religious masters were once students) and we have a record of it. There are no real big head-scratchers with this explanation, and it fits the evidence, which is why, as Price reported, New Testament scholars are near-unanimous.
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Old 03-19-2010, 12:45 AM   #2
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I have said this before, but I'll say it again: if you have chosen your conclusion, then you can easily fit the evidence to the conclusion.

...[...]...

What is wrong with these explanations? Well, mainly the lack of evidence. If you don't have evidence, then an unlikely explanation stays unlikely.
You are weilding a two edged sword.
Be careful you dont hack your arm off.
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Old 03-19-2010, 08:05 AM   #3
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I have said this before, but I'll say it again: if you have chosen your conclusion, then you can easily fit the evidence to the conclusion.

...[...]...

What is wrong with these explanations? Well, mainly the lack of evidence. If you don't have evidence, then an unlikely explanation stays unlikely.
You are weilding a two edged sword.
Be careful you dont hack your arm off.
Thanks; I am actually quite happy to stick to the same standards that I demand mythicists should adhere to--only the most probable explanations should be accepted.
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Old 03-20-2010, 11:02 AM   #4
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Just to be clear, even though Price's conclusions are driven by activism at the expense of probability, his book gives plenty of useful information to an amateur audience. For example, on page 110, he makes a point about John the Baptist according to Jesus as quoted in Matthew 11:11 and Luke 7:28, which are sourced from the gospel of Q:
I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.
I overlooked that quote until now, but it seems to be striking evidence that Jesus was subordinate to John the Baptist in the earliest Christian traditions (I take Q to be earlier than Mark). Jesus was born of a woman according to every early tradition, so Jesus is saying that John is superior to himself. You can either make a sidestep--maybe Jesus was only being humble or he was talking about the relative status of John before his own rise to glory--or you can accept the most probable implication of this quote. If you combine that with the accounts of John baptizing Jesus, then the implication is further reinforced.
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Old 03-20-2010, 11:45 AM   #5
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Just to be clear, even though Price's conclusions are driven by activism at the expense of probability,
This is your misimpression, and might constitute libel. Price is driven by critical analysis. His interest in NT studies started when he was an evangelical, but Biblical criticism showed him that his evangelicalism was logically and factually unsupportable. He currently has a comfortable academic position, attends his local Episcopalian Church, and has no reason to spin his analysis one way or another.

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... striking evidence that Jesus was subordinate to John the Baptist in the earliest Christian traditions (I take Q to be earlier than Mark). Jesus was born of a woman according to every early tradition,...
Be careful about "earliest Christian traditions."

What does Q actually say? And how can you date it, other than by wishful thinking?

Jesus' birth is missing from Mark. The birth stories differ in Matthew and Luke. Paul's letters contain the formulaic phrase "born of a woman" but nothing that supports this, and you have to admit the possibility that the phrase is a later interpolation.

All we know is that Marcion did not think that Jesus was born of a woman, and the proto-orthodox church reacted to Marcion's canon by putting its own canon together. All of the canonical Christian texts have passed through orthodox editors. The earliest versions are unknown and probably unknowable.

If you think that the Gospel of Thomas is part of the earliest tradition, it sounds like Jesus was not born of a woman, or that his cryptic riddle has some other interpretation. Were members of the Kingdom born of women, or did their baptism make them reborn of the spirit? The second interpretation is the only one that makes sense of that saying. Otherwise how could John be greater than all those born of a woman but less than those in the Kingdom?

Going for the easiest interpretation that suits you is not basing your argument on "probability."
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Old 03-20-2010, 12:31 PM   #6
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So Abe feels free to shoot from the hip and accuse someone with vastly more knowledge and training of basing his opinions on "activism" and arnoldo tries to support him without claiming to know anything at all.

This is not the purpose of this forum. Please refrain from charges like this unless you have some basis in fact.
Sometimes I shoot from the hip, as you rightfully claim, but not in this case. The anti-religious activism of Robert M. Price is no secret--he boasts it on a sticker on the first page of his book ("ROBERT M. PRICE is a lecturer and a debater from the Council for Secular Humanism and the Campus Freethought Alliance, as well as a professor for the Center for Inquiry Institute..."). That fact alone does NOT mean that his conclusions are driven by activism at the expense of probability--no, my conclusion emerges also from the terrible weakness of his arguments and the sloppiness of his scholarship, as I discuss in detail in the OP. I am not shooting from the hip any more than you are in your assertions in his defense.
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Old 03-20-2010, 12:40 PM   #7
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..--the sloppiness of his scholarship,...
This is where you are getting into professional libel. Price has 2 Ph.D's. You have ??

You make pronouncements like "it is an accepted principle of Biblical scholarship, following from a sociological principle, that earlier records are less likely to reflect theological prejudices than later records, because earlier records generally reflect a more accurate picture of events, whereas later records generally contain greater corruptions from biases emerging from years of rhetorical debate"

without providing any citation or justification or method of dating documents or . . . any indication that this is other than sloppy thinking on your part.

To follow Price, you need to have read Derrida. Perhaps you have started at the wrong place.
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Old 03-20-2010, 01:00 PM   #8
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..--the sloppiness of his scholarship,...
This is where you are getting into professional libel. Price has 2 Ph.D's. You have ??
I have his book in my hands, a few years of amateur study, a high IQ, the backing of almost every other critical New Testament scholar with a Ph.D. who accepts far different conclusions, and the backing of the critical scholarly publishers who refused to print his material.
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You make pronouncements like "it is an accepted principle of Biblical scholarship, following from a sociological principle, that earlier records are less likely to reflect theological prejudices than later records, because earlier records generally reflect a more accurate picture of events, whereas later records generally contain greater corruptions from biases emerging from years of rhetorical debate"

without providing any citation or justification or method of dating documents or . . . any indication that this is other than sloppy thinking on your part.
When I make a claim that is common knowledge and commonly accepted among everyone else, I normally do not provide a citation or justification. It is damned tiring to provide a detailed justification to hyperskeptics for every point that seemingly should be accepted as damned obvious, because there are many of them and it is hard to predict what the hyperskeptics will doubt. But, since I am trying to get through to the hyperskeptics, I am going to have to do just that. I am not sure exactly what you find wrong with my assertion. If you can state exactly what you find wrong with it, then I will be more able to supply it with evidence from your vantage.
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To follow Price, you need to have read Derrida. Perhaps you have started at the wrong place.
You got me there. I don't even know who Derrida is. I thought all I need to do follow Price is to read Price. What material of Derrida do you suggest I read?
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Old 03-20-2010, 01:53 PM   #9
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...
I have his book in my hands, a few years of amateur study, a high IQ, the backing of almost every other critical New Testament scholar with a Ph.D. who accepts far different conclusions, and the backing of the critical scholarly publishers who refused to print his material.
Who have you read besides Ehrman? Who refused to print Price and why?

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When I make a claim that is common knowledge and commonly accepted among everyone else, I normally do not provide a citation or justification.
You have a tendency of claiming things to be common knowledge that are not in fact either common or knowledge.

Quote:
It is damned tiring to provide a detailed justification to hyperskeptics for every point that seemingly should be accepted as damned obvious, because there are many of them and it is hard to predict what the hyperskeptics will doubt. But, since I am trying to get through to the hyperskeptics, I am going to have to do just that.
:boohoo:

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I am not sure exactly what you find wrong with my assertion. If you can state exactly what you find wrong with it, then I will be more able to supply it with evidence from your vantage.
Everything is wrong.

it is an accepted principle of Biblical scholarship, following from a sociological principle,

There is no such sociological principle. It is generally assumed in Biblical scholarship and otherwise that earlier works are more likely to be historically accurate. But when you assume that the Bible was written as history you are assuming what you are trying to prove.

that earlier records are less likely to reflect theological prejudices than later records,

But everything in the Bible has a theological basis.

because earlier records generally reflect a more accurate picture of events, whereas later records generally contain greater corruptions from biases emerging from years of rhetorical debate

Earlier works do not necessarily reflect an accurate picture of events if they were written as fiction or as theology to start with. Again, you are assuming what you are trying to prove.

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... I don't even know who Derrida is.
<facepalm>

Derrida for Beginners (or via: amazon.co.uk)
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Old 03-20-2010, 02:01 PM   #10
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arnoldo's digression has been split off here
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