I’m Candida Moss and I am professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame. I was an adviser on the “True Cross” episode and served as one of the many on-camera experts in CNN’s “Finding Jesus” series, which currently airs on Sundays.
Viewers were invited to tweet and post their questions on the “Finding Jesus” Facebook page during the show. Below are some of the more interesting questions and my answers to them. My apologies to everyone I didn’t get to. Feel free to tweet your questions to me directly.
Cyndi Rosenthal: Are there any other historical references of John the Baptist outside of the Bible?
Daniel José Camacho: Any extra-biblical sources that shed light on historical figure of John the Baptist?
Moss: (These questions are on a similar topic, so I’ve chosen to answer them together.) Actually there is external attestation for the life and importance of John the Baptist. This is important because it’s fairly rare to find this kind of evidence for ancient figures outside the writings of their followers. The Jewish historian Josephus mentions John the Baptist in his book, “The Jewish Antiquities.” Josephus describes John as a “good man” who possessed “virtue” and had “great influence” over the people. According to Josephus, Herod put John the Baptist to death because he was afraid that he might raise a rebellion. This gives us another — arguably more historical — perspective on why John was executed and provides further evidence about just how important John was in his own day.
Yalanda M. Price: Was there any division between the followers of Jesus and the followers of John the Baptist?
Moss: One of the interesting things about the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist is that John doesn’t lay down his tools and follow Jesus after he baptizes him. Nor, it seems, did John’s disciples. They had separate ministries and, while there may have been contact between the two groups, they were also de facto competitors in the ancient religious marketplace. There are some hints in the New Testament that Jesus and his followers had to differentiate themselves from John by stating that Jesus’ baptism was better (Acts 11:6) and countering the idea that Jesus was actually John raised from the dead (Matthew 14:2) Some scholars argue that these references are evidence of tension between followers of Jesus and followers of John.
Jeffery Graff: Can the DNA tests on the bones indicate whether he is a Jew or even whether he is of the tribe of Levi?
Moss: I’m so glad someone brought up DNA. The DNA tests on the Bulgarian bones yielded only mitochondrial DNA (DNA passed down by the mother), not the more reliable nuclear DNA (the kind of DNA referred to in forensic investigations). In the original study of the Bulgarian relics (of which I was a part) the mitochondrial DNA revealed that the Bulgarian relics were of “probable Semitic origin.” Thinking back to my time in the laboratory with the Copenhagen scientists, I recall that the lead investigator estimated that the probability was about 75%. The episode last night stated things a little too sharply when it said that the bones were from a Middle-Eastern man.
As for the more specific question about the genetics of Jews and members of the tribe of Levi: Current scientific technology does not reveal this kind of information even if start-up genetic testing companies promise this kind of information.
Herb Scribner: Can anyone explain to me what the Bible’s deal is with 40 days/nights?
Moss: It’s more an interest in the number 40. In the Hebrew Bible the people of Israel wander in the wilderness for 40 years before they reach the Holy Land. The flood lasts for 40 days and nights; Moses spends 40 days and nights on the mountain; Goliath spends 40 days encouraging the Israelites to challenge him before David steps up; 40 is a common age for people to be when they get married; in the book of Judges it is always 40 years between judges; and David and Solomon each reigned for 40 years. What we can take away from all of this is that people in the ancient world saw 40 as suggesting a full, complete period of time. It’s sort of like a narrative stock number, in the way that modern jokes follow the rule of three.
Daniel José Camacho: Wait, how did Jesus get “Our Father” prayer from Johnny B??? Didn’t catch that.
I’m also really glad someone brought this up, because I wondered about it too. In the Gospel of Luke, one of Jesus’ disciples says, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” It’s an interesting request that tells us something about John the Baptist’s ministry and the demanding characters of Jesus’ disciples! In Luke, Jesus responds to this request by teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. We don’t know that the Lord’s Prayer came from John, and personally I don’t think it did; I think this is just how Luke shaped his version of events. But if you were just reading Luke you could come to that conclusion.