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John the Baptist and Josephus- by G. J. Goldberg


John the Baptist



                                                                                   by G. J. Goldberg



       The  New Testament

A Baptism of Repentance 
    Mark 1:4-9 
    Lk 3:3-3:18 (Matthew 3:1-12) 
Herod, Herodias, Salome and the Head of John the Baptist 
    Lk 3:19 
    Lk 9:7-8 (Mark 6:14-16) 
    Mk 6:17-29 (Matt. 14:1-12)


 A Baptism of Purification 
 Herodias and Salome 
 Herod and Herodias and Herod's First Wife and Aretas 
 Josephus in the Desert 


The Popularity of John the Baptist 
A Baptism of Repentance 
Herod's Marriage to Herodias 
The Dating of John According to Josephus 
       The Argument of Saulnier 

The New Testament

A Baptism of Repentance

Mark 1:4-9 
    John the baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." 

Lk 3:3-3:18 (Matthew 3:1-12) 
    In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius...the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight...'" 
    John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance...." 
    And the crowds asked him, "What then shall we do?" In reply he said, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." 

Herod, Herodias, Salome and the Head of John the Baptist
Lk 3:19 
    But Herod the Tetrarch, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother's wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.

Lk 9:7-8 (Mark 6:14-16) 
    Now Herod the Tetrarch heard about all that had taken place, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen. Herod said, "John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?" And he tried to see him.

Mk 6:17-29 (Matt. 14:1-12) 
    For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. 
    When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When  the daughter of  Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.



Baptism of Purification

Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119

     Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and was a very just punishment for what he did against John called the baptist  [the dipper]. For Herod had him killed, although he was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God, and having done so join together in washing. For  immersion in water, it was clear to him, could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions. And when others massed about him, for they were very greatly moved by his words, Herod, who feared that such strong influence over the people might carry to a revolt -- for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise -- believed it much better to move now than later have it raise a rebellion and engage him in actions he would regret. 
    And so John, out of Herod's suspiciousness, was sent in chains to Machaerus, the fort previously mentioned, and there put to death; but it was the opinion of the Jews that out of retribution for John God willed the destruction of the army so as to afflict Herod. 

Herodias and Salome

Antiquities 18.5.3 136

    Herodias was married to Herod, the son of Herod the Great by Mariamme the daughter of Simon the high priest. They had a daughter Salome, after whose birth Herodias, taking it into her head to flout the way of our fathers, married Herod the Tetrarch, her husband's brother by the same father, who was tetrarch of Galilee; to do this she parted from a living husband.

Herod and Herodias and Herod's First Wife and Aretas

Antiquities 18.5.1 109-115 
(This paragraph immediately precedes the one about John.)

      About this time Aretas, the king of  Petra, and Herod the Tetrarch had a quarrel on account of the following. Herod the tetrarch had married the daughter of Aretas and had lived with her a great while; but once when he was on his way to Rome he lodged with  his half-brother, also named Herod but who had a different mother,  the high priest Simon's daughter.  There he fell in love with Herodias, this latter Herod's wife, who was the daughter of their brother Aristobulus and the sister of Agrippa the Great. 
    This man ventured to talk to her about a marriage between them; she accepted, and an agreement was made for her to come to him as soon as he should return from Rome, one condition of this marriage being that he should divorce Aretas's daughter. So when he had made this agreement, he sailed to Rome; but when he had finished there and returned again, his wife, having discovered the agreement he had made with Herodias, and before he knew that she knew of the plan, asked him to send her to Machaerus, a place on the border between the territories of Aretas and Herod, without informing him of any of her intentions. 
    Accordingly Herod sent her there, thinking his wife had not perceived anything. But she had sent messages a good while before to Machaerus, which had been under the control of her father, and so all things necessary for her escape were made ready for her by the general of Aretas's army.  By that means she soon came into Arabia, under the conduct of the several generals, who carried her from one to another successively; and soon she came to her father and told him of Herod's intentions. 
    Aretas made this the start of his enmity toward Herod. He also had a quarrel with him about their boundaries in the area of Gabalis. So they raised armies on both sides and prepared for war, sending their generals to fight instead of themselves. And when they had joined battle, all Herod's army was destroyed by the treachery of some fugitives who, though they were of the tetrarchy of Philip and joined the army, betrayed him.  So Herod wrote about these affairs to Emperor Tiberius, who was very angry at the attempt made by Aretas and wrote to Vitellius to make war upon him and either to take him alive, and bring him in chains, or to kill him, and send him his head. This was the command that Tiberius gave to the governor of Syria. 

Josephus in the Desert

Life 2 
    When I was about sixteen years old I had a mind to make a trial of the several sects that were among us. There are three of these, that of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the third that of the Essenes, as we have frequently told you. I thought that being acquainted with them all I could choose the best. 
    So I consigned myself to hardship, and underwent great difficulties, and went through them all. Nor did I content myself with the trying of these three only, for when I was informed that one whose name was Banus lived in the desert, and used no other clothing than what grew upon trees, and had no other food than what grew of its own accord, and bathed himself in cold water frequently, both night and day, to purify himself, I imitated him in those things, and continued with him three years.


The Popularity of John the Baptist

    Both the New Testament and Josephus depict John the Baptist has having a more powerful influence on the majority of the people of the time than did Jesus. Josephus' description of John is more detailed than his account of Jesus, and John's death is, in the people's view, avenged afterward by Heaven with real actions, but Josephus mentions  no such divine support for Jesus.

    In contrast with his usual attitude toward popular leaders, Josephus is sympathetic towards John the Baptist. One wonders what the difference is between John and the men whom Josephus disparages as "deceivers" (apateônes) and "enchanters" (goêtes), such as Theudas and the Egyptian. It isn't simply that John did not represent a direct threat to Rome -- Josephus always stresses the folly of those who do oppose Rome -- as many of the others also seemed apolitical. All of these, including John, seemed to be killed solely because they had a large following, which in itself was seen as a threat to those in power: there was room for only one crowd and only one leader. We are left to conclude that Josephus himself was touched favorably by the philosophy of John, just as many of his countrymen were. While he was probably working from a source that was itself positive toward John, his choice of that source would have reflected his own attitude. 

A Baptism of Repentance

    Josephus seems genuinely intrigued by the notion of baptism and tries to explain it in terms his audience can understand. (The word derives from the Greek baptô, "dip".) He understands it first as a purification of the body, playing the same role as the traditional mikvah. The spiritual question involved is whether John has the power to forgive sins, perhaps with the aid of water that has mystical properties. Josephus strongly denies that John claimed any such power: the washing was a physical manifestation of a spiritual commitment to performing good works.

    In the New Testament John gives a "baptism of repentance," and insists angrily to those who come to him that they must "bear fruits worthy of repentance," an attitude which accords with Josephus' description. But he is also seen as providing "forgiveness of sins" after the repentance has been made, and the religious authorities, particularly in the Book of John, are suspicious that he is taking upon himself a divine role. His follower Jesus is more directly accused of this in the other Gospels.

    Josephus does not hint that John was announcing the imminent coming of the Messiah, as the New Testament does. But throughout his works Josephus deliberately hides references to the Messiah (for example, in his account of Moses he leaves out Deuteronomy 18) -- except to describe the notion as a primary cause of the war with Rome, which was evidently well known to his non-Jewish audience (the Roman historian Tacitus also mentions it), which is reason enough for him to not want to provoke his audience by presenting the idea positively. Yet it is difficult to understand the excitement of the people in response to John simply based on the description of his philosophy as given by Josephus. 


    Modern scholars see a similarity between John and the sect that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, who are usually taken to be the Essenes described by Josephus. John may have once been an Essene who developed a following of his own.

    This may explain Josephus' favorable view of John, for the Essenes are described in very much greater detail than the other two major Jewish philosophies. Moreover, in his autobiography, Josephus tells us that when he was a teenager he spent three years in the desert  with a man named Banus who resembles John in behavior (as in Mark's description). This Banus clothed himself using only trees,  ate only food that was found in the wild, and bathed himself in cold water several times a day. Yet this Banus was not an Essene, but a unique individual. This experience seems to have given Josephus a lasting sympathy for people who led this way of life, which is quite probably why he speaks so favorably of  John the Baptist. 

Herod's Marriage to Herodias

    The gospel of Mark states that John criticized the marriage of Herod the Tetrarch to Herodias, and it was this criticism that led to John's arrest and execution by Herod. Josephus does not  say that the marriage had anything to do with Herod's action. But there is an implied connection between the two -- this is found in Josephus' account of the destruction of Herod's army.

    Herod the Tetrarch did illegally marry Herodias, Josephus tells us. Herodias was a grandchild of Herod the Great and Mariamme the Hasmonean, through Mariamme's son Aristobulus. Her grandfather had arranged her marriage while she was still a child to her cousin, his son Herod, the one whose mother was daughter of the priest Simon. (It much less confusing for us if everyone weren't named Herod.)  This arranged marriage apparently wasn't satisfactory, as she left her "living husband" to marry her husband's step-brother, Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee.

    Whether she simply left her first husband unofficially, thus committing polyandry, or whether she "divorced" him on  her own initiative, the action was contrary to Jewish law, as a woman was, and still is not in Orthodox Judaism, allowed to divorce her husband without his written consent -- i.e., he must divorce her.

    The story does not end there. Josephus tells us that this marriage of Herod the Tetrarch and Herodias led directly to war with the neighboring Arab king, King Aretas; for Herod had been married to Aretas' daughter. Whatever circumspection he had planned to gently divorce her without angering Aretas was thwarted when his wife got wind of his plans and prematurely fled to her father. This, coupled with a dispute over borders, led to the battle that destroyed Herod's army.

    It was this battle that the Jews of Galilee associated with Herod's treatment of John the Baptist, says Josephus. Why would they make such a connection? There are two possibilities. One is a simple chronological proximity: if the army's defeat occurred immediately after Herod's execution of John, the people would have made a direct link between the two events. But the other possibility is conceptual: if John had been killed by Herod some time earlier because he criticized Herod's marriage to Herodias, then seeing the army destroyed as the direct result of this marriage must have looked like a just punishment indeed.

    So even if Josephus does not say so, it is a plausible conjecture, even if we did not have the New Testament sources, that John had indeed criticized Herod's marriage and was executed for it.

    (Incidentally, this King Aretas is the same one mentioned by Paul in 2 Corinthians 11:32.)


       A widely-known story is that of Salome, Herod's daughter who danced so well that he promised to give her anything she asked for, whereupon she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. 
        However, in the New Testament Herod's daughter is not named. Then why is it that everyone who's heard the story knows the name Salome? 
        We know it not from the New Testament, but from Josephus, in the passage cited above. Salome was the daughter of Herodias by her first marriage, to Herod-the-son-of-the-daughter-of-Simon-the-high-priest. Mark actually identifies Herodias' first husband as another of Herod the Tetrarch's brothers, Philip. Modern scholars assume this is a mistake, and a natural one, as Philip was, of course, also named Herod. Still, the error indicates that this part of Mark was not written by contemporaries of John, who would certainly have known who married whom. 

The Dating of John According to Josephus

    A puzzle for readers is that Josephus' description of John the Baptist occurs several paragraphs after his description of Jesus (18.5.2 116 compared to 18.3.3 63), implying that John came later in time; but it is important in the gospels that John appeared before Jesus so as to announce him. When, exactly, does Josephus state that John arose? 
    He is not at all clear, as is often the case for events that occurred before his time. Even when Josephus is precise about dates he can frequently shown to be somewhat off (as when he gives the length of the reigns of Roman emperors). So any conclusions about John from this passage must be taken cum grano salis. 
    Having said that, it does appear that Josephus is giving John's death as occurring in 36 CE, which is at least 6 years later than what is expected from the New Testament, and after the crucifixion of Jesus. This date is seen as follows. Herod's battle with Aretas appears to have broken out soon after Herod's first wife, Aretas's daughter, left him. If so, then John did not have much time between the moment people were aware Herod was remarrying and the start of the battle with Aretas, for John was already dead before the battle. Josephus gives several indications that the battle occurred in 36 CE:
  •     He states that the quarrel with Aretas sprang up "about the time" (Ant. 18.5.1. 109) that Herod's brother Philip died in 34 CE (Ant. 18.4.6 106).
  •      During this time Herod's brother Agrippa had gone to Rome "a year before the death of Tiberius" (Ant18.5.3 126), which places Agrippas's departure in 36 CE.
  •     Soon after the battle, the Syrian commander Vitellius was ordered by Tiberius to attack Aretas, whereupon Vitellius marched through Judea with his army, pausing in Jerusalem to placate the Jews and to sacrifice at a festival (probably Passover). On the fourth day of his stay in Jerusalem he learned of the death of Tiberius, which had occurred on March 16 37 CE (and it could have taken up to a month for Jerusalem to get the news). This puts the battle in the winter of 36/37 CE.
  •     Vitellius' action against Aretas must have occurred between his action against the Parthians, under Tiberius' orders, and the death of Tiberius. The Parthian war occurred in 35 and 36 CE, as indicated both by Josephus and by the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius. (Herod the Tetrarch assisted Vitellius in negotiations between Tiberius and the Parthian king.)
     The only question, then, is whether Josephus is misleading when he implies that the battle with Aretas came immediately after Herod separated from  Aretas' daughter. 
      So when did Herod marry Herodias? The only hint Josephus gives is that the pair first met when Herod was on his way to Rome, but unfortunately the only such journey we know about was when Herod visited Augustus to receive his inheritance in 6 CE. This is not very helpful. So the evidence of Josephus is that John the Baptist was executed in 36 CE, well after the time indicated by the gospels - but, it should be noted, still within the governorship of Pontius Pilate.

The Argument of Saulnier

    However, the scholar Christiane Saulnier published a  paper in 1984 arguing that the marriage can be placed in 24 to 28 CE using evidence from Josephus, an argument that Murphy-O'Connor, who is quite careful about dates, accepts in his book Paul: A Critical Life. So let us examine Saulnier's paper (C. Saulnier, "Herode Antipas et Jean le Baptiste: Quelques remarqes sur les confusions chronlogiques do Flavius Josephus," Revue Biblique 91:362-376 (1984)). 
       To establish the earliest date we can know they were wed, Saulnier points out the passage at Antiquities 18.6.2 148  which refers to "Herodias, the wife of Herod the Tetrarch." The task is to date this passage. We know it could not be describing a time prior to 23 CE, and Saulnier votes for a time close to that date. 
        The date is derived from the travails of Agrippa the First, the brother of Herodias. According to Antiquities 18.6.1-4, Agrippa had been living in Rome since before the death of his father Herod the Great (4 BCE), and had become well acquainted with the family of the Emperor Tiberius. But when Agrippa's mother Berenice died he lost her sensible control over his free-spending nature and also her connections with the imperial family. In consequence he quickly ended up in debt. Agrippa had also lost his friend Drusus, Tiberius' only son, who had been poisoned in 23 CE, and Tiberius, out of his grief, cut off contact with his son's old companions. Agrippa quickly spent his money trying to keep close to the emperor and soon found himself in debt with no one to help him. 
        As a result, he left Rome to seek help with his family in Judea. But he grew suicidal, and only through the intervention of his wife Cypros and his sister Herodias was he persuaded to live on.. It is here that the reference to Herodias as wife of Herod the Tetrarch appears; the latter gives Agrippa an allowance for living expenses and a profitable job as a local director  of commerce. 
     Agrippa was now resourceful, and eventually became solvent again. When he did, he sailed back to Rome, in 36 CE, and once again made the acquaintance of Tiberius. 
      So the remark about Herodias can be  placed between 23 and 36 CE. But where in this range? Saulnier attributes Agrippa's departure from Rome as due to the death of Drusus. But it is the death of his mother Berenice that caused Agrippa his money problems, and we do not have a date for her demise.  The death of Drusus could have occurred years before, and Josephus might be mentioning it at this point only because it is logical,  not chronological. We simply don't know the time between Drusus' death and Agrippa's departure from Rome. 
    Saulnier offers a number of speculations about Herod's unexplained trip to Rome, the source of his enmity with Agrippa, etc. These do not, however, provide any new evidence that can be used for a chronology. 
    What we do know (Ant. 18.6.2 150)  is that "no great while" after Herod the Tetrarch gave Agrippa an allowance and a job, Agrippa attempted to alleviate his money woes by dealing with the Roman governor Flaccus; and that Flaccus was in power from 32 to 35 CE. This again supports the idea that it was the early 30's (31-35) when Agrippa came to Judea in debt, and so there is no evidence Herodias' marriage took place much earlier. 
    The event that limits the latest possible marriage date, the battle between Aretas and Herod, is then addressed by Saulnier. Josephus implied this battle occurred fairly soon after Herod's separation from Aretas' daughter; in between these two events,  John was executed (assuming he did criticize the new marriage as the gospels relate). Thus, Saulnier asks whether the date of this battle might have been well before the year 36 CE in which Josephus places it. 
    If we put aside more speculations, the concrete proposal Saulnier makes is that Josephus has confused the occasion of Vitellius' presence in Jerusalem for the Passover of 37 CE, when the news of Tiberius' death was received. Josephus states Vitellius was marching to attack Aretas on Tiberius orders following the battle with Herod; but Saulnier asks why Vitellius, stationed in Damascus, would march through Jerusalem to attack an Arab leader headquartered in Petra (Jordan)? Perhaps this is explained by the exact point of attack, which  is unknown,  but probabilities dictate that this  point has some weight. Instead, suggests Saulnier, Vitellius was in Jerusalem to keep control of matters after his removal of Pilate , which evidently occurred in February or early March of that same year 37 (because Tiberius had died by the time Pilate arrived in Rome). 
    To support this, Saulnier points out that Josephus records two visits by Vitellius to Jerusalem during a Passover, once when Pilate was removed (Ant. 18.4.3 90) and once when he was marching against Aretas. But these would have been the same Passover: both events are dated by Tiberius' death in 37.  He suggests Josephus separated a single event into two and was incorrect about the timing of Vitellius' attack against Aretas, which occurred, by this reasoning, prior to the Parthian war. The confusion is made plausible by Josephus' lack of good sources for the period and his general laxness with identifying the proper synchronicity and ordinality of events. 
    Against this idea of the mistaken Passover there are the following points:

  •      Josephus says that Vitellius "sent Marcellus to take charge of affairs in Judea" when Pilate was removed, not that Vitellius  went himself. We will have to suppose that this statement is inaccurate, too.
  •      A different report of Vitellius visiting Jerusalem (Ant. 15.11.4  405) seems to have been confused with the visit at Pilate's removal, as both involve the possession of the high priest's garments. So although there is an obvious confusion in the text, there are other resolutions than the suggested one: the visit at the time of Pilate's removal could have been confused with an earlier visit in 36 (as described in Louis Feldman's footnote in the Loeb edition). Saulnier has a rejoinder ready: that Vitellius was too busy with the Parthian war of 35-36 to make two visits to Jerusalem. In response to that, one can note that war was waged in summer months, so there was time in the winter for Vitellius to look over his territories.
  •      It is not impossible that two things occurred at the same time: the attack on Aretas and the removal of Pilate. If Saulnier wishes to argue that Vitellius could go to Jerusalem to take care of matters after removing Pilate, it seems one can further argue that he can combine two goals in one, by marching on Aretas through Judea. Perhaps that actually is the explanation for Vitellius' route against Aretas.
  •     The year 37, or 38,  was Josephus' birth year. He might have known something from his parents about what was going on in Jerusalem at this time. (On the other hand, such memories can also be the source of errors that one is most blind to.)


    Conclusions about Saulnier's Discussion

    Considering the arguments as a whole, Saulnier does propose a possible way in which Josephus' chronology can be reconciled with the gospels'. For believers in the basic accuracy of the gospels, that is enough. But if one regards the gospels' dating as suspect and solely works from Josephus' text, then Saulnier's discussion pushes the date back some but does not produce any firm evidence identifying the date of Herodias' marriage as occurring before the early 30's CE. The reader can choose between these alternatives according to his or her own predisposition. 

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