Review of The First Christian Believer

Review of The First Christian Believer February 11, 2020

My review of Rivka Nir’s book about John the Baptist, The First Christian Believer, has been published by Reviews of the Enoch Seminar. Here’s how it ends:

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.

Please do click through and read the entire thing. One of the things I fault the book for is its complete omission of any mention of Mandaean sources. But more fundamentally, Nir assumes a dichotomy between earliest Christianity and a Jewish orthodoxy that undermines her entire argument if one is not already persuaded by this axiomatic premise. Nonetheless, her book highlights the potential usefulness of a book I have begun working on about the historical John the Baptist. As I write elsewhere in the review, “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.”

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  • I enjoyed the review. I’m working on a thesis that everything Josephus wrote was an interpolation. It’s part of a larger thesis that Josephus was a mythical figure that was historically reified later.

  • Newton Finn

    I like the thrust of this article (and will check out the book), because I, too, believe that John the Baptist is among the most misunderstood and underestimated figures we encounter in the gospels. Indeed, there is scriptural evidence that Jesus was originally among John’s followers, and even stronger evidence that Jesus was not only baptized by John (a major embarrassment and work-around for early theologians, including the gospel writers) but also did not begin his own prophetic ministry until John had been thrown into prison. Rightly or wrongly, we were taught back in the day of my rather radical seminary (that’s somehow still kickin’) that when Jesus praised John, saying that no greater mother’s son had ever been born, the qualifying phrase that follows, but the least in the Kingdom is greater than he, was a fairly obvious editorial insertion to blunt the highest regard, in human terms, that Jesus had for this towering “forerunner.”

  • Mark

    I haven’t seen the book but it is strange that Nir omits the Mandaeans. She makes fairly extensive use of Mandaean literature in her analysis of 2 Baruch. She has a similar objective there: to show that an ostensibly (damaged) 1st c. Jewish work is in fact a ‘Christian’ fantasy. There is an odd essentialism about this. God knows where she thinks the ‘Christian’ essence came from, that it is everywhere as different from true Jewish thinking as fire from water. An odd dialectic turns her into a sort of historical Marcionite or a historicized variant of an old Lutheran theologian. ‘Christianity’ is the teaching of an alien God — rather than just more strange and perhaps amusing or catastrophic adventures (as you please) of the same God.

    In the Baruch book she even argues that the messianic and apocalyptic features of the rabbinic tradition arise from Christian influence — because (she claims) they are not in the Yerushalmi and like works, but appear in the Bavli. But of course nothing is clearer than that the writers of the Bavli were quite outside Christian influence – Christians were a minority like themselves – sometimes more oppressed (as imagined Roman agents), sometimes less oppressed.

    Clear and definite lines separate the approaches and beliefs expressed in
    Syriac Baruch from those of the early Jewish tradition. In the Bible, in the
    literature of the Second Temple, and in the early layers of talmudic literature
    there is no apocalyptic messianism; that is to say, there is no drama of the end
    of days or anticipation of a heavenly Jerusalem that will come in place of the
    earthly one. The first hints of eschatological messianism appear in the amoraic
    layers of the Jerusalem Talmud, but it finds fuller expression in the Babylonian
    Talmud and in the medieval midrashim.

    The development of an apocalyptic outlook in Judaism was the result of
    both internal developments and external influences: the remoteness of the
    possibility of national redemption in the concrete historical plane fostered the
    emergence of a supernatural, miraculous messianism bearing apocalyptic
    characteristics. In addition, the relative weakness of the Jews within Christian
    society and their tendency to adapt themselves to the milieu and concepts that
    surrounded them, led in the final analysis to the penetration of Christian
    influences. These contributed to the increasing distance of Jewish thought in
    the Middle Ages from its early Palestinian sources and to a blurring of the lines
    of distinction between it and Christianity regarding the apocalyptic-messianic
    subject.