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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