We began the final day of the Enoch Seminar conference on John the Baptist with a recap (and I provided one on my blog once again). Al Baumgarten calculated that we will have spent 32 hours together talking about John the Baptist by the end of the last day of the conference, a striking figure when we consider how few words we have about him in the New Testament and Josephus.
As we started the day thinking about messianism and what John said about the “coming one,” I shared some reflections and prospects that I had been contemplating before the conference, but all the more during it. There are several points that came up that resonated and intersected directly with things that I have been thinking about in connection with my book project. Let me share them here. Kelly Coblentz Bautch highlighted the subject of what it means to ask whether John was Elijah, and whether Jesus was John or one of the prophets. It also intersects with the question “Who is this ‘Son of Man’?” (which is very similar to “Who do you say the Son of Man is?” in the Synoptics). Coblentz Bautch suggested a possible connection with mysticism and the idea of celestial Doppelgangers. What if that was a central facet of what John’s baptism was about, a means not only to obtain forgiveness but to be transformed through a revelation of and union with one’s heavenly counterpart, who might turn out to be the heavenly counterpart of one of the heroes of Israel’s history? This thinking might also be in view in the fragment from the Prayer of Joseph in which Jacob realizes that he is also the angel Israel. It may also have a connection with Jesus’ practice of nicknaming his followers. Although the descent of “the holy spirit” is immediately associated with the idea of a person of the Trinity in Christian theology, in Judaism the idea was much less specific. The depiction of Jesus experiencing the descent of a heavenly spirit when he was baptized that led him into the wilderness may have led to questions about whether he might be Moses or the Prophet like Moses. His sayings about being greater than Solomon and Jacob may also deserve to be situated against this background.
This connects with a point Shayna Sheinfeld made so well, that there is a great similarity between John, Jesus, and the “imposters” described by Josephus. We rarely do justice to the similarity. What if it isn’t just a result of a shared cultural context, or even a widely-held expectation that a crucial moment in God’s plan for history had been reach. If John spoke not just about a “coming one” but “one who comes after me” that would suggest one of his disciples would play a decisive eschatological role. What if Jesus and those other figures are all deliberately seeking to be “the one who is to come,” perhaps most or all of them being from John’s circles of followers?
Paul Anderson situated Jesus’ temple action as in essence a message from John. Where else might we find John’s teaching on the lips of Jesus? “Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” for instance? I also pointed out that when John said “someone is coming” he might have said in Aramaic “a son of man is coming.” Might Jesus’ “Son of Man” sayings, whether in detail or in broad outline, reflect John’s sayings about the “Coming One”? Might Jesus have continued to predict such a figure coming, whether or not he hinted that he might in fact be the one predicted?
The idea in Mandaeism and other Gnostic traditions that there are heavenly counterparts of earthly figures at least reflects a shared broad context in common, but it might involve more direct influence. The Mandaeans also have Hibil (Abel) and Shitil (Seth) as key heavenly figures as well as having a connection through their names with the human children of Adam. Anush-Utra is probably Enosh, but Enoch is a possibility if less likely from a linguistic standpoint. The Mandaeans are largely uninterested in Israelite history between Moses who leads people astray and the era of figures like John the Baptist, which is itself interesting.
Federico Adinolfi argued that the “Coming One” is God rather than a messianic figure. Webb overturned his conclusion and changed his mind because of the reference to the Coming One being stronger, one whose sandals he is unworthy to untie, and also the fact that John asked whether Jesus might be the Coming One. Adinolfi does not find those arguments decisive.
Joel Marcus said that, if we stretch messianism to cover any eschatological figure, then John probably saw himself as the “main man.” But Marcus considers it best not to stretch the terminology that way. Larry Schiffman considers the prediction of a “Coming One” most likely secondary as a Christian creation to get John to point to Jesus. He also mentioned that the “two messiahs” idea at Qumran is often thought to be “Aronic and Davidic,” but in a study he wrote that hasn’t gotten the attention or acceptance he would have liked, he has highlighted that that is not the case. The average Jewish person would have said they accept a messiah, and had a Davidic one in mind. He said that what people really wanted was lower taxes in ancient as modern times, and that was connected with hatred of the Roman overlords. Here too there is a connection between ancient and modern popular thinking which is often to the detriment of infrastructure.
Paul Anderson argued that there were competing messianic views, even if most did converge (for all their diversity) on anti-Roman sentiments. There was interesting back and forth between Boccaccini and Schiffman about diversity and predominant trends in Jewish messianism. Schiffman emphasized that the two major categories that Gershom Scholem used, utopian and restorative messianism, both had a this-worldly focus rather than what Christians mean by “salvation.” I suspect the disagreement is due to Schiffman assuming a Christian meaning of “salvation” which may not be what even many of the earliest Christian texts we have had in mind.
Harold Attridge started the next session with a presentation on John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark. He raised questions such as whether John spoke about a coming “mighty one” or “stronger one,” since the latter may reflect a Christian adaptation. In view of the discussion of John as Elijah, the final mention in which those who hear Jesus cry out on the cross say he is calling for Elijah, is striking.
Tucker Ferda talked about John in the Gospel of Matthew. Each of the Gospel authors transforms John in some way. Matthew’s depiction of John has to be placed in the context of Matthew’s use of sources in general. In every appearance, Matthew uses John to say something about Jesus. Matthew’s “New Exodus” motif focuses on “exilic reversal.” Matthew omits John’s baptism being “for the forgiveness of sins,” moving the phrase to the Last Supper so that it refers to Jesus’ death. “For Matthew, what happened at Golgotha was more important than what happened at the Jordan.” John has been shaped retrospectively in the image of the Jesus who comes after him. In chapters 3 and 4, the opening introduction of the activity of John and Jesus are mirror images of one another, featuring a geographic setting, scriptural fulfilment, and a summary of their message which in Matthew is identical. Both have a message that posits stark alternatives, an either/or choice.
Clare Rothschild argued that Luke incorporated two Baptist sources into his Gospel: Luke’s infancy narrative and Q. A number of scholars explored the idea that Luke used a Baptist infancy narrative derived from Baptist circles (see Walter Wink for the history of that idea). Raymond Brown, on the other hand, rejected this view, and Joan Taylor in her work ignored the possibility. The infancy narratives are themselves evidence of a “Baptist community,” as they view John as a divine figure akin to Jesus. Maurice Goguel argued that the New Testament authors played down the dependence of Jesus’ teaching on John’s. The introduction to Jesus teaching his disciples to pray indicating that it is “just as John taught his disciples to pray” indicates that the prayer stemmed from John. Perhaps Luke’s shorter version was John’s original and Matthew’s was Jesus’ adaptation thereof? John is a heavenly revealer figure with access to God’s power. Rothschild next discussed theoxeny, Luke 19:44 indicating that Luke considered the showing of hospitality (ξενία) to Jesus as welcoming God. In Luke the Kingdom of God is in your midst, and those who went out to see John often failed to recognize his divinity.
Catrin Williams presented on the Baptist in John’s Gospel. The focus in John is on his spoken testimony rather than his activity. He has prophetic characteristics as one sent by God. His seeing as the basis for his testimony is also emphasized. Williams argued for John having known the Gospel of Mark and transformed it in ways that were in keeping with ancient norms of use of sources. This limits the quest for early independent tradition in John, but does not exclude it entirely, as e.g. in the case of the simultaneous activity by John and Jesus. Yet she also argued that certain aspects of the portrait were not embarrassing to the author in ways scholars sometimes assume. She views the qualifying insistence that Jesus himself did not baptize (John 4:2) as a later interpolation, with the Gospel in its original form comfortable with Jesus’ baptizing activity and his link with John in that connection. The Gospel’s author does not clarify what if anything distinguished their activities. Williams also noted the way water features so frequently in the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John. Marianne Meye Thompson has argued that baptism for Jesus, and Jesus’ words about being born of water and Spirit, treat water baptism as a preparatory act with a view to receiving the Spirit. The difference for the author then is that John baptized with water, Jesus with water and Spirit.
To an extent that hadn’t really registered with me previously, I now find myself struck by the way the Gospel of John elevates Jesus over the Baptist. The very way it is framed, whether the reaction of John’s disciple or John’s reply, assumes that it is not blatantly obvious to an observer that Jesus is superior in some way. This takes for granted that they are engaged in the same activity (baptism) and offering the same kind of teaching. The protestation that Jesus did not baptize is an interpolation by the author into a source used, if not a later scribe’s insertion into an already-finished Gospel of John.
In the discussion Ben Reynolds noted the transfer of the Isaiah 40 quotation onto the lips of John: “I am the voice…” Alicia Meyers noted that, if Rothschild is right that Luke drew on a source that viewed John as a divine figure, that would make it natural to see the author of the Gospel of John as responding to that Lukan/Baptist tradition. Brian Dennert reminded us of the points made by Rafael Rodriguez on social memory theory, asking what the constraints and present needs of the Gospel authors may have been and what it points to with respect to historical questions. The Evangelists’ creativity was constrained by widespread knowledge and memory pertaining to John the Baptist.
Edmondo Lupieri emphasized the need to discuss redaction, in light of which we see in Matthew a “theology of succession.” Matthew found some elements in Mark problematic and pushed John back into the old economy, and Jesus saying whatever John did so that John’s contribution is emptied of its independent significance. The relationship of John and Jesus was a Christological problem for the early Christian authors, even if not always in the same way. Joel Marcus said that the presentations providing an overview of the New Testament Gospels would have been better on the first day. He also suggested that the idea of a Baptist infancy narrative behind Luke deserves to be studied and explored again. Marcus is skeptical of the idea that John used Mark directly. Harry Attridge asked whether there could be something more like a ‘friendly competition’ between John and Jesus (either historically or in the literary depictions). Ferda mentioned the evidence in Acts that it may have become simply a given very early on that one started the story of Jesus with John. He suggested it is significant that Jesus’ words about the leaders being killers of the prophets echoes the phraseology of John the Baptist. Rothschild responded to a question about the visitation in the Lukan infancy, noting that some think there are Baptist and Christian infancy source materials present, and some view the entire thing as adapted from a Baptist source. She agreed with my appeal to more research and doctoral dissertations on this topic. She also asked the fascinating question why we are told that “Elijah appeared with Moses” rather than “Elijah and Moses appeared.” Williams mentioned a book coming out next month which shows that it is Matthew and Luke that are anomalous in their close use of Mark. John, if Mark was used, did so in a manner more in line with Greco-Roman norms about writing. Michael Daise noted a similarity in the Greek vocabulary used in the LXX in reference to the Day of Atonement scapegoat, although in the latter case it tends to be rendered in terms of “release” rather than “forgiveness.” Paul Anderson noted the possibility that the author of the Gospel of John had heard Mark’s Gospel performed, rather than having read it or having a copy to hand when writing his own work.
Federico Adinolfi presented first in the next session which focused on John the Baptist and the historical Jesus. He considers the “baptist embassy” in Q to illustrate the right and wrong way to approach this topic. Joel Marcus suggests that John initially viewed Jesus as an Elisha figure and then came to view him in more messianic terms. Adinolfi proposes shifting our focus from roles to goals. Both had a program. The scholarly view of Q 18:23 is problematic because it ignores the ring structure (inverted parallelism), which he thinks counters the understanding of it as about John doubting and Jesus rebuking him. That would undermine John’s authority in a way that runs counter to the overall emphasis of Q. Q is clear that Jesus viewed John is the greatest human being, more than a prophet, inferior only to himself. In Matthew Jesus is the continuer of John. It is hard to imagine Antipas allowing John to communicate freely with his followers, and that too casts doubt on the historicity of the episode. Moral purity is prioritized but ritual purity is not thereby denigrated. John and Jesus both engage in the same effort to call “not the righteous but sinners.” There is reason to think Jesus was a baptist despite the lack of such a portrait in the Synoptics. As Taylor and Adinolfi explored in an article, Jesus’ locale of activity indicates the water and wilderness connection due to his baptizing activity. Adinolfi notes that the story of Jesus healing a man at the Bethesdah mikvah indicates Jesus’ baptizing activity–which is not a way I had ever thought about that story before.
Sara Parks focused on Q and trauma theory. Parks began with the typical situating of the apocalyptic sayings attributed to Jesus in a context of persecution in the early church. She argues instead for the “vengeful logia” of Jesus being inspired and prompted by the imprisonment and execution of his mentor John the Baptist. This is a response to the view advocated by John Kloppenberg, which views Jesus as the source of the more playful and forgiving sayings, with Q2 reflecting Jesus’ followers. There is no need to posit a persecution of followers for which we have no evidence, when we have the imprisonment and execution of John mentioned in the source material together with a portrait of him as Jesus’ mentor. The sayings about punishing the murderers of the prophets can be related to Jesus’ experience as a trauma survivor. More broadly, apocalyptic literature may be survivor literature, among other things, a coping mechanism for individual and collective experiences of violence. The idea of eschatological justice provides hope for vindication of victims.
Darrell Bock started by discussing how we use texts as fragmentary remains from the past, and how their outlook and teaching also entangles us with matters of worldview. The Baptist’s impact is such that he constitutes an “irremovable presence” in the Jesus tradition. We need to look at the extent to which Jesus’ own activity reflected John’s legacy. Bock emphasized how problematic it is to try to separate Jesus from the apocalypticism that was popular and widespread in his time. John and Jesus shared a call to return to God in anticipation of long-awaited fulfilment of promises. He then turned to Dale Allison’s “five standard disjunctions” (Constructing Jesus, p.206) which Bock follows Allison in problematizing.
Fernando Bermejo-Rubio noted how some see a great continuity between John and Jesus, while others (such as John Dominic Crossan) can speak of them as essentially opposites. Even those who emphasize continuity detect differences and perhaps rivalry. In Bermejo-Rubio’s view there is a long list of commonalities: both called people to repent, both were viewed by contemporaries as prophets, both appealed to marginalized groups, both were accused of being possessed by demons, both were arrested and later executed by rulers, and on and on the list could go. No one has suggested that Jesus was merely a carbon copy of John. The response that aligned his own authority with John’s would (if the setting is correct) indicates that Jesus himself saw continuity between himself and John right to the end of his life. Even before it came up in this paper, I had found myself thinking about the saying of Jesus (echoed in the Pseudo-Clementine literature) that Jesus said no human being was superior to John. Whether Jesus or a Christian author added the supposedly qualifying statement about the least in the Kingdom of God does not change that. Those born of women is everyone, and that includes those who enter the Kingdom of God, and so it is not a contrast. I suspect that if these words were being expressed in our time and way, we might say “No one is greater than John; yet even the least who lives to see the Kingdom of God dawn has an advantage over him.” Unless we want to say that those who enter the Kingdom of God are not those born of women, then the addition does not effectively detract from or qualify what Jesus said about John’s greatness. Bermejo-Rubio had come prepared to make a similar point to Parks, namely that Jesus was profoundly troubled by his mentor’s imprisonment and execution, rather than having viewed him as a rival.
The first discussant was Ben Reynolds who recapped and outlined some useful avenues for further conversation. Tamás Visi highlighted the convergence of Christian memory and testimony on baptism as a ritual, although not its theological interpretation. He also said that Rothschild’s arguments seem compelling to him. More discussion is called for, at the very least, of the possibility that Q represented a collection of sayings that stemmed from Jesus. Ben Snyder turned our attention to some specific texts related to repentance and the purification of one’s heart in second temple Judaism. In response to a question, Parks referred to Sarah Rollens on the stratification of Q and Candida Moss on the fact that feeling of persecution does not necessarily reflect active experience thereof personally and directly. John’s execution would leave Jesus feeling directly attacked even if the threat against him and his entourage would have been impossible to pin down. At the root of her paper is discomfort with the attempt to separate the sapiential from the apocalyptic in Jesus’ teaching. Joel Marcus suggested a need for comparative work with other successors who become figureheads of movements in their own right (such as Malcom X in relation to Elijah Muhammad, or the Báb and Baha’u’llah). Matthew Brankatelli brought up again the possibility that esteem for and denigration of John in comparison to Jesus may have been simultaneous rather than reflecting earlier and later views and contexts. Edmondo Lupieri conversely argued for the appropriateness of asking about and positing sources that are no longer extant. Boccaccini emphasized the potential for sapiential and apocalyptic/eschatological to converge and coexist. He differs from Adinolfi in concluding that something happened prior to Jesus’ death to move his thinking in a different direction from his mentor, which then enabled his followers to continue things in a different direction from John’s. Visi suggested that, in view of Josephus, we might want to refrain from so readily assuming a historical connection between John and Jesus.
The final session was dedicated to wrapping up. We brought everyone who was present and who had their camera on into the session, which like the introductory sessions each day was livestreamed on Facebook. Gabriele Boccaccini started things off noting how amazing it was that we had so much interest in talking about John the Baptist 2,000 years after his time, and the papers did not significantly overlap. Clearly there is a lot of disagreement and interest, and that points ahead to what remains to be done and is worth pursuing. He mentioned that Joan Taylor’s work inspired the meeting as well as much of what each of us has done on the subject, and invited her to say a few words. She said how wonderful the tone and open discussion has been. The disagreement has been visible but surprising amount of consensus emerged. She was delighted to find her own work taken up and developed in ways that built on and improved her own proposals. She said she is glad to see the consensus shifting away from sacramental and atoning views of John’s baptism to focus more on purity. John’s liminality makes him a pivot in many historical reconstructions as well as methodological debates (e.g. what constitutes a “sect,” movement, or legal school and how those differ from mere points of view). Attention to John leads us in directions that are helpful in the studying of concepts both ancient and modern. Taylor appreciated Joel Marcus’ bold presentation of his ideas in a broad and comprehensive way, which is really necessary to stimulate conversations like this one.
Joel Marcus wrote his book in fulfilment of a vow to Moody Smith who had the idea for a series on New Testament personalities. Like Taylor he is impressed by the degree of interest in John the Baptist and the work of young scholars.
Edmondo Lupieri was also a pioneer in focusing his research on John, and so Boccaccini invited him to share next. He focused first on reception history, noting that what we think of as “sources” are in fact the first level of reception, each with their own agenda and political and religious motivation. The conversations here will shape work done on John the Baptist for the coming decades. An important topic is the concept of intersession and “who saves whom.” Another is the fact that people in ancient times could pick and choose from among halakhic teachings in a manner that did not align them with one school of thought entirely. Lupieri also mentioned the idea of John the Baptist having been conceived on Yom Kippur. This influenced the configuration of the Christian calendar as focused on the births and deaths of both John and Jesus.
Boccaccini reminded us all that the aim was to bring people together from an array of different fields, and so he invited Larry Schiffman to offer his view from the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and second temple Judaism. We have a lot of data and are missing a lot of data, and try to make sense of various phenomena. It is difficult to place someone who is as uncertain as John in the context of an era that is itself uncertain. How can we really hope to compare John to the Essenes, for instance? At a conference like this one we try to learn about and from each other’s uncertainties. We may not leave more certain about John, but we will have a more accurate sense of what we do and do not know.
Kelley Coblentz Bautch said that the Enoch Seminar put together a conference that was truly “bingeworthy.” In my own thoughts I mentioned how much I appreciated the reminders from Schiffman and Baumgarten of how little we know and how important it is to appreciate what we do and do not know in relation to one another; and that we genuinely can assemble the pieces in different ways. The picture on the box is not the only thing we can do with Legos. I take away from the conference the need to “play” together more frequently, to share our pieces. I appreciated the attention to neglected ideas and texts, not only Mandaean texts but the possibility of a baptist infancy source behind Luke (as perhaps also behind the Mandaean Book of John). I also mentioned some things I already said in this blog post about the continuity between John and Jesus in detail and not just their vague direction or emphases. The depiction in the Gospel of John presupposes that the two appeared very similar to others. I also leave with a new appreciation of the fact that “no human being is greater than John” constitutes Jesus’ view of him. Those born of women means human beings, and so is not a distinct category from those who enter the Kingdom of God but a broader one. Jesus’ praise of John is thus not qualified by any addition.
Shayna Sheinfeld stressed how important it is to recognize our own positionality (upbringing and tradition as well as scholarly methods used) and to define our terms however much we may think their meaning can simply be assumed. This helps us to interact with one another as well as previous generations of scholars more meaningfully, with an appreciation of what each of us brings in terms of both strengths and weaknesses. None of us and none who has gone before us is beyond question.
Federico Adinolfi’s forthcoming book in Italian was mentioned, and then he shared how much he valued the conversation at the conference and how it provides a sense of where we still disagree yet also how the tide has turned or is turning. The conference highlighted John’s priestly background but did not spend as much time as we should have exploring John’s view of the temple. John provides a fascinating avenue by way of which to approach second temple Judaism.
Daniele Minisini offered his perspective as a doctoral student. He particularly values both the chance to deepen his appreciation of the strength and breadth of second temple Judaism, and to find clarified for himself how blurry categories are more useful than strict ones in relation to this particular subject area.
Al Baumgarten mentioned his work on four stages of millennial movements, which he thinks are relevant since John’s movement fits this category. Baumgarten is thus proceeding as a lumper here. The stages are arousal, signs of the times, upping the ante, and disillusionment. When John asked soldiers to make do with their pay and not bully, he was calling them to “up the ante” rather like Millerites who did not plant crops, indicating their genuine belief the world would end.
Paul Anderson drew in a number of strands, some mentioned at the conference such as Sara Parks’ introduction of trauma theory, others less so, such as some of the relation to other strands and streams in developing early Christianity. Ben Reynolds mentioned his forthcoming book which he expects will be a focus of significant critique based on some things he heard at the conference, not that that was unexpected. Rafael Rodriguez asked how important it is when a source doesn’t explicitly mention something, and how that relates to the memory the audience brought with them. For instance, if Luke says “Jesus was baptized” with a passive construction, is it really plausible that he did not envisage his readers knowing the tradition that John had done so? He is intrigued by the debate about purity vs. forgiveness of sin. The similarities between John and Jesus tells us more about both, and deserves to be the focus more than it tends to be, since we typically pay more attention to how they may have differed. Alberto Camplani mentioned the issue of how the New Testament texts and events of the first century relate to the literature of the second century and beyond. This deserves more attention, as does work across multiple traditions from the same period and texts from different traditions (such as the baptism in Apocryphon of John and the Mandaean Book of John). Francesco Pieri confessed that he felt his contribution was unusual, his interest in John the Baptist coming by way of Patristics and sacramental theology. Sara Parks expressed appreciation for the spirit of kindness and mutual respect at Enoch Seminar conferences. Catrin Williams and Fernando Bermejo-Rubio also shared thoughts. Stephen Pfann mentioned how unusual and rewarding it is that the Enoch Seminar brings together people with such different perspectives and areas of expertise. Gabriele Boccaccini mentioned some other names with expression of gratitude, also highlighting how meetings like this keep us from making wrong assumptions about other fields that our work intersects with and upon which we draw. He then asked Michael Daise to offer some concluding remarks. He expressed particular appreciation for the conversations between longstanding and newer scholars, and those working on John directly with those whose main interests lie elsewhere. He also emphasized the special issue of the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus about Joel Marcus’ book, which also informed and provided an impetus for the conference. Boccaccini added that we have seen at this conference the Enoch Seminar at its best. We were one of the first organizations to move conferences fully online and the result was very rich and rewarding. The pandemic has meant he has not been back to Italy for longer than ever before in his life, but it also provided an opportunity for a conference that had more participants and from parts of the world where the cost of traveling to the usual locations of academic conferences is cost prohibitive. The time difference poses challenges, and there is value to in-person meetings. But we need to not cease continuing these kinds of events as well, whether alternating in-person and online or doing more that is hybrid. Boccaccini also mentioned a series that the University of Michigan will have next year on second temple Judaism, which will include at least two online conferences, one of which will be on the place of second temple Judaism in Judaic studies. Where other conferences or program units bring together people using the same methods, the Enoch Seminar is different, approaching the same questions with different perspectives. That is what makes it so special and valuable.
This was such a rewarding event. If you have not already done so, do take a look at the handouts and in some cases complete paper drafts on the Enoch Seminar website.