AAR Conference Paper for 2022: “Late Antique Texts and Earlier History: The Case of John the Baptist and Mandaean Sources”

AAR Conference Paper for 2022: “Late Antique Texts and Earlier History: The Case of John the Baptist and Mandaean Sources” April 9, 2022

I mentioned in a previous blog post that I will present a conference paper in the Society of Biblical Literature’s “Q” program unit about John the Baptist. I have now learned that I have also had a paper accepted by the American Academy of Religion’s Traditions of Eastern Late Antiquity program unit. The title is “Late Antique Texts and Earlier History: The Case of John the Baptist and Mandaean Sources.” Here is the abstract I submitted:

There is a noticeable inconsistency when it comes to the use of sources from Late Antiquity as evidence for people and events in earlier times. In the case of Rabbinic sources, while there has been a shift away from the earlier tendency to assume they accurately depict the views of rabbis who lived centuries earlier, the consensus remains that there is material of historical value to be found in the Talmudim and related sources. In the case of Christian sources, on the other hand, most historians regard sources from our period (whether the Nag Hammadi texts or Syriac hagiography) as of little independent historical value in relation to the period of Christian origins. The main exception is the Gospel of Thomas. Precisely because it overlaps so extensively with the Synoptic Gospels in the New Testament, its connection with the historical Jesus (whether direct or indirect) is confirmed, and yet for the same reason its independent usefulness can be dismissed. If we lacked most of our earliest sources available to us, however, a source like Thomas might be simultaneously more precious to historians, and more difficult to confirm as historically valuable.

This conundrum provides an illustration of the situation with respect to the Mandaeans and John the Baptist. Using the relationship between late antique Jewish and Christian sources and first century history as a guide, I will make the case Mandaean literature can be useful to historians when studied in an appropriately critical fashion. This comparative study of how historical scholars treat Jewish, Christian, and Mandaean texts and traditions will further provide a basis for elaborating methodological principles that may (and, I will argue, should) equally be applied to all of them.

Both papers tie in directly to my sabbatical project about John the Baptist which will be the focus of my research and writing for the 2022-2023 academic year. I have some exciting updates about the sabbatical that I hope to be able to share soon. When I do, I will also answer a question that a commenter asked on an earlier blog post and explain a bit about exactly what it is one does during a sabbatical.

In the meantime, I am excited to see that there will be other papers at SBL in November that are directly relevant to my project, such as Mike Kok’s which he wrote about on his blog here:

My Upcoming SBL Paper: “The Gospel of the Ebionites and the Synoptic Problem”

He will also be giving another paper:

Second Upcoming SBL Paper: “A Lost Source Identifying Matthew as a Toll Collector”

If you will be at AAR/SBL I hope to see you there, especially but not only if you share my interest in John the Baptist!

Let me toss a few more snippets of ideas I am working on as they intersect with recent posts on other blogs. One of my ideas pertaining to John the Baptist is that he may have given the impetus not only to the Jesus movement, but to the other similar ones that followed thereafter. It has been typical to assume that the shared characteristics are a result of general messianic ideas. Yet there has also been an emphasis on the fact that there was no one prevailing generic messianism. I think there are enough threads that can be drawn together to make it plausible that John spoke of one who would come and that that figure would embody the spirit of some past figure, whether Joshua (parting the Jordan or making the walls of a city collapse), Elijah calling fire from heaven, and so on.

On those figures see also this recent post on Dave Allen’s blog:

Jesus and the other Apocalyptic prophets.

I also have thoughts on Isaiah’s influence on John (and thus also on Jesus). On that topic see this recent post by John Squires:

A new thing, springing forth (Isaiah 43; Lent 5C)

There is a parable of the good shepherd in the Mandaean Book of John and so I will also be doing work on the theme of the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

I believe that much of what Jesus said that was critical of the temple provides insight into the aims of his mentor John the Baptist. On a related note see Phil Long’s recent blog posts which mentions aspects of this:

Out of the Mouth of Infants – Matthew 21:14-17

Jesus Curses the Fig Tree – Matthew 21:18-22

When challenged on where he got his authority to do such things, Jesus pointed to John the Baptist.

Where Did Jesus Get his Authority? Matthew 21:23-27

An interesting Italian manuscript in Yale University’s library, containing a Life of John the Baptist, is available online.

Q as a Source of Knowledge about John the Baptist

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