The life and death of John the Baptist should be of strong interest to anyone serious about understanding Jesus, about studying the Bible – whether for spiritual benefit or knowledge of history and the birth of Christianity.
This is the next post in an ongoing series between Brian LePort, PhD biblical studies student, and me. Brian focuses a lot on John, partly because he sees attention to him being seriously underplayed in the understanding of most of us, as well as the scholarly world. I observe the same thing. In a time when study of the life and ministry of Jesus is drawing a lot of attention, we believe there is a sort of gap to be filled in here, as much as that may be possible. No, we don’t know of any “secret” new documents and when we engage in speculation we will always try to label it so, plainly. But lacking new textual or archaeological discoveries does not mean there is nothing new to be noted, particularly for personal understanding, in the sources we do have.
As to sources that date fairly close to the lifetimes of John and Jesus (which are largely overlapping), that is, late first century, we have only Josephus’ history and the New Testament (NT), mainly the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. Now, Josephus presents information largely additional to that in the NT and possibly somewhat in conflict with it. Our first exchange dealt mainly with the Josephus material. There is enough there, and of importance, that today’s post here and Brian’s post (found here) of yesterday continue to deal with it. If you haven’t yet, please go to Brian’s blog and read the article so you will better understand my comments here.
The quick summary of it is this: Josephus noted John to be a “good man” calling people to “virtue” (a crucial Greek concept in this work in Greek, which Josephus was proficient in) in the form of “… righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God…”. Thus did Josephus seek to wed Greek and Hebrew religious concepts. He did this throughout particularly this later of his major histories. He was trying to increase the respectability of Jews after the major revolt and subsequent war in which Rome had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.
Some further background: Josephus had been, as an aristocrat, a young general in the beginnings of the revolt against Rome that began in Galilee, the same region where Jesus grew up and where most of his ministry of healing and teaching took place. The initial rebel group and Josephus were quickly captured. At some point thereafter Josephus began cooperating with the Roman military leaders and ultimately came into the employ of more than one emperor. Having changed his viewpoint after capture… some would say became a traitor… as a chronicler, he took the position that the rebels were a radical and small minority who pushed the nation into a foolish war. One which God did not back, but rather, God used Rome for God’s ends. Yet he remained essentially loyal to things Jewish, working to support Jews throughout Rome’s Empire, and with a continuing Jewish outlook on things, moderated by a significant Greek/Roman exposure. (My summary though in quotation format.)
Returning to Josephus on John: Brian quotes Josephus and covers how Herod Antipas, the Roman-endorsed Tetrarch of the region and son of Herod the Great, felt threatened by the possibility of John leading a popular revolt. (We have no evidence that John planned to do so, but it was probably a logical fear of Antipas’.) So he had him imprisoned and put to death.
One of Brian’s important points is that for a prophet or preacher to address personal choices to be fair and just with one’s neighbors and fellow citizens at least potentially impacts a social structure and economics (always “follow the money”). Additionally, the Jewish system, largely left intact during Roman occupation, was one in which religion and its rituals and laws (Torah) were all a part of the larger socio-economic order and operations of important aspects of life (Sabbath, Feast days, diet, etc.). There was not a “separation of church and state” as we are used to. However, the Roman state, outside the Jewish systems, did exercise ultimate control before and after the war of 66-70. So John may well have represented a threat to the status quo in a serious way for a ruler like Antipas.
Brian and I wrapped up in discussing the size of John’s following and of the crowds that gathered in “the wilderness” near the Jordan. (We can’t be certain exactly where, likely at various points where the approach to the river and areas to baptize were suitable.) We can’t know the actual numbers of people hearing or following John, but both Josephus and the NT line up that it must have been substantial, perhaps in the thousands. (Josephus elsewhere gives figures for Pharisees and Essenes, two of the three major “philosophies” he describes, at around 6000 and 4000 respectively.) It would seem this would mark a likely maximum, with the number probably a bit lower during John’s lifetime. (A peek ahead: we know his movement continued after his death, and at least partially distinct from the followers of Jesus, but there is very little information on it until after the first century. But this, in itself, raises some interesting questions.)
Some possible points to consider in further study of John: Can we infer anything else of importance in what John was trying to accomplish? How does it relate to our own spirituality in our modern context? Are there things to learn from John directly, beyond his introduction of Jesus, supposedly in his day and certainly to us, as found in our Gospels?
Was his emphasis only on “preparing the way” for the coming of Jesus, and declaring him to be the promised Messiah? If so, why did Josephus make no mention of this at all? It is possible… is it realistic… to try to reconcile Josephus’ account with those in the Gospels and Acts (the latter including some reference to his followers decades later)? Are one or more of the authors purposely skewing something, maybe even putting words in John’s mouth quite different from his actual message? (Some of these may be jumping ahead more than Brian has in mind, and if so, they will stand as teasers for later.)
Something a little different for this blog: First, today’s article will be first in a series back and forth between me and a fellow blogger, Brian LePort… he introduces what we intend to do further below.
Second, this “diablog” will be more involving of history and biblical studies than I’ve generally done here. You may know that I dip in and out of certain issues of biblical scholarship, particularly as they relate to certain matters of faith. There is quite a bit of detail in today’s article but some others should be shorter and less detailed. They also may become more interesting as we move into important issues that involve early Christian beliefs and the New Testament. All of this about John the Baptist in relation to Jesus, and the followers of each of them, is something which I think Brian and I agree is way too little examined and discussed. This is particularly so for lay people reading or studying the New Testament (NT) and Christian origins.
I want to add that I am only a well-informed lay person myself, although with a seminary degree and some PhD theological study, but not focused on biblical scholarship. Brian, on the other hand, is a current PhD student in biblical studies, with lots of earlier study under his belt as well. His main focus area is planned to be on John the Baptist and related issues; and he uses Greek and other languages where pertinent. (My knowledge of Greek is mostly forgotten and I never knew enough Hebrew to even count as useful.) So Brian will be doing most of the “heavy lifting” on this series. My contribution remains to be seen, but may involve some aspects of sociological or psychological factors, the development of religion and mythology, and general issues of Christian origins or NT texts, which I have studied in fair depth.
So… just below is Brian’s introduction and initial article (access here), to which I will respond briefly following….
Recently, Howard Pepper contacted me in response to the articles that I’ve been writing about John the Baptist for Bible Study and the Christian Life (see The Popularity of John the Baptist; The Proclamation of John the Baptist; and Was the Prophesy of John the Baptist Fulfilled?). He wanted to know if I’d be interested in dialoging about the Baptist via our blogs (we might call it “diablogging”). I thought that this could be an enjoyable exercise since I’m already doing a lot of studying about this important figure and it is nice to talk to people with shared interest. We decided to begin with Josephus’ passing description of the Baptist since this is a lesser known perspective when compared with that presented in the early Christian Gospels. Eventually we will make our way through the Gospels and the Book of Acts and then maybe even further examining later literature.
This is the above mentioned text from Josephus in Antiquities 18.5.109-119 that mentions the Baptist (if you don’t want to read the whole excerpt, the second paragraph describes John and I summarized the first paragraph below):
(109) About this time Aretas (the king of Arabia Petrea) and Herod had a quarrel, on the account following: Herod the tetrarch had married the daughter of Aretas, and had lived with her a great while; but when he was once at Rome, he lodged with Herod, who was his brother indeed, but not by the same mother; for his Herod was the son of the high priest Simon’s daughter. (110) However, he fell in love with Herodias, this last Herod’s wife, who was the daughter of Aristobulus their brother, and the sister of Agrippa the Great. This man ventured to talk to her about a marriage between them; which address when she admitted, an agreement was made for her to change her habitation, and come to him as soon as he should return from Rome; one article of this marriage also was this, that he should divorce Aretas’s daughter. (111) So Antipas, when he had made this agreement, sailed to Rome; but when he had done there the business he went about, and was returned again, his wife having discovered the agreement he had made with Herodias, and having learned it before he had notice of her knowledge of the whole design, she desired him to send her to Macherus, which is a place on the borders of the dominions of Aretas and Herod, without informing him of any of her intentions. (112) Accordingly Herod sent her thither, as thinking his wife had not perceived anything; now she had sent a good while before to Macherus, which was subject to her father, and so all things necessary for her journey were made ready for her by the general of Aretas’s army and by that means she soon came into Arabia, under the conduct of the several generals, who carried her from one to another successively; and she soon came to her father, and told him of Herod’s intentions. (113) So Aretas made this the first occasion of his enmity between him and Herod, who had also some quarrel with him about their limits at the country of Gamalitis. So they raised armies on both sides, and prepared for war, and sent their generals to fight instead of themselves; (114) 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, joined with Aretas’s army. (115) So Herod wrote about these affairs to Tiberius; who, being very angry at the attempt made by Aretas, wrote to Vitellius, to make war upon him, and either to take him alive, and bring him to him in bonds, or to kill him, and send him his head. This was the charge that Tiberius gave to the president of Syria.
(116) Now, some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; (117) for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. (118) Now, when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it should be too late. (119) Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure against him.” 
Source: Wikipedia Commons
In summary, Herod Antipas the Tetrarch over Galilee and Perea is married to the daughter of King Aretas IV, the ruler of the Nabateans (see the map for regions). While visiting his half-brother Herod Philip I in Rome he falls in love with his wife, Herodias, who was also the daughter of another half-brother, Aristobulus. Herodias agrees to marry Antipas if he divorces his wife. The news of this arrangement found its way back to Antipas’ wife who requested of Antipas that she might spend some time at Macherus, a fortress near the border shared with the Nabateans.  Since Antipas did not know that she knew of his plans he had no idea that she wanted to go to Macherus in order to slip back into her father’s territory. Once she had done this it was possible for Aretas IV to war against Antipas, and he did, and he defeated Antipas’ forces soundly.
Where does the Baptist come into the picture? Well, Josephus says that Antipas executed John because of John’s sway over the people. He believed that they would listen to anything he said, which could destabilize the region, especially if John called for some sort of revolt against Antipas. So, Antipas executed John. When Antipas was defeated by the Nabateans the people remembered this event, which may have been several years earlier, and they said that it was God’s vengeance on John’s behalf that caused the outcome.
There remains a lot more to be said, most importantly about how the Baptist is described, but I want to give Howard Pepper a chance to respond with any insights or questions he might have about this section. His blog is Natural Spirituality. When he has posted his introduction (i.e., Pt. 1b) I will link to it here then respond at a later date.
Howard: A few things are of special note in this section. One, that Josephus claims John’s execution was a sort of “preemptive strike” by Herod Antipas (not to be confused with Herod the Great, btw, for some readers… who was the Herod of the time of Jesus’ birth. This is one of his several sons, if I recall rightly). This indicates what Josephus also develops in great detail: how rebellious factions arose commonly in those times, often led by a charismatic prophet or messiah figure. However, neither Josephus nor the NT hint that John encouraged violence or political rebellion or that his following was prone toward it… just that Herod feared it, perhaps mainly because conditions were so unstable.
Josephus and the NT seem to line up that John was “good” or “righteous” (which doesn’t automatically exclude political rebellion), that he was concerned with repentance from sin (especially in relation to Torah… Jewish law, apparently, and perhaps from collaboration with Rome unduly… which involves that gray area of politics that may have spooked Herod). He was also known for baptizing, and that not through any of the “established” institutions of the priesthood or Temple…. And his wilderness ministry, around the Jordan River according to the NT, was quite a few very hilly miles from Jerusalem.
Perhaps as important as anything, Josephus and the NT agree that John drew large and enthusiastic crowds. One question here that comes to mind, Brian, is what numbers might we be talking about as to crowds or the total number of people baptized by John? When the NT gives any numbers for those hearing Jesus, reportedly at 4000 or 5000, I tend to believe those were symbolic numbers for a crowd that may well have been much smaller…. or even possibly larger. What might a “crowd” be in wilderness terms, and in 1st century Palestine terms?
[Go to Brian LePort's blog here for his original or to find his reply]
Those of us who have been part of Evangelical Christianity or have been close to the movement tend to have the impression that it never changes.
That is not far off… in that most Evangelicals and their leaders do take a timeless view of God and of “absolute truth”. Such truth is, to them, revealed in the Bible. Their concept is that current Evangelical or “Bible-believing” faith represents the faith “once for all delivered to the Saints” in the first century. There is indeed a lot of resistance to both internal change and to supporting cultural change, especially around things involving sexuality.
However, as this fascinating article by a Scottish Anglican Provost claims, Evangelicals do change, even on issues they take very seriously, but tend to lag about 30 years behind the broader culture.
The article is titled “10 Things Evangelicals Don’t Tell You at First”. It’s not that these ten things (or others) are carefully-guarded secrets. They are not actively hidden from outsiders or new members. But at least some of them are either not realized by less-informed Evangelicals or are downplayed in most church services (such as belief in a literal hell and who is believed to be headed there).
There are other good insights in this fairly short article… things I find to be true to both the American Evangelicalism I grew up in and left about 20 years ago and to what I observe of current Evangelicalism. Take a look, here.
There is an article on Christianity Today‘s website, recently posted, summarizing a panel discussion among some Christian leaders, including the author, Ed Stetzer. I found it encouraging on one level and frustrating on another.
The article explains that the discussion (the audio of which they link to) focused a lot on issues of salvation. It asks, as did the participants in the panel, under what circumstances Christians can cooperate on missions given their differences, among other similar questions. I’m encouraged with this example of somewhat greater concern merely TO cooperate and to be mutually accepting than often in the past within traditional Christianity.
At the same time, I’m frustrated that leaders like these remain largely bound within restrictive doctrinal (theological) systems. They perhaps do not even recognize as “Christian” the versions of Christian theology and church practices that differ more significantly from them than do the conversation partners of this panel. And this kind of thing is multiplied many times over…. Evangelicalism is actually (contrary to the popular media picture) getting more diverse, theologically open and generally more tolerant of differences. Yet its core and most key leaders still keep attempts at inclusion and cooperation largely “in-house”.
So I’ve set the context for what follows…. With the above situation in mind, here is the response I posted in the comment section of this article:
I’m glad to see this kind of discussion, as a former Evangelical. My tradition and main alliances (schools and churches attended and ministered in and such), like the author’s, generally worked within the Calvinist-Arminian differences. This I was grateful for.
However, now with much deeper biblical and other study behind me, I see an even greater need to expand the conversation partners. For example, why not include Process theologians and pastors much more often… or Evangelicals reach out to them and vice-versa? I realize a mild version of this happened mostly a couple or more decades ago when Open theology (still within Evangelicalism, so not as far along the same lines as Process goes) was being discussed more.
Yes, the entire paradigm of interpretation is different within Process and not able to be fully harmonized with a more traditional supernaturalist view of God and the Bible. But at the least, more such conversations and attempts to cooperate on compassionate missions of helping neighbors (anyone, and in today’s world, anywhere) in need, would help both groups grow and live out more of the “gospel” (defined almost any way one will).
Most religious people don’t care what other people feel about their religious group… supposedly!
The Pew Forum just released a survey of how Americans feel about their own as well as other religious groups… basically how positively or negatively they view them. Why would they so such a survey?
Probably because people DO care what others think of them. Or at least a lot of us do, regardless if we say to ourselves or others that it doesn’t matter. (The “doesn’t matter” is usually because what counts, on a conscious level, is getting it right as to views of God, the Bible, etc.) And to the truly mature, the views of most other people really doesn’t matter (but that’s a very small percentage of people, in my understanding).
I won’t spend much time summarizing the interesting Pew survey results – just a couple highlights and refer you to their website’s report here. Jews, Roman Catholics, and Evangelical Christians are all viewed similarly… and most positively by Americans overall. Respectively, at 63, 62, and 61 percent. (The survey was worded such that 50% is neutral, below that, negative.)
What should be noted, however, is that each group, such as Evangelicals and Catholics, are included in the totals, and these two are the largest religious groups in the U.S. According to the tables on the Pew Forum site, Protestants who reported were broken into three groups: “White evangelical”, “White mainline” and “Black Protestant”, while only “Evangelical Christian” was listed as a group that people reported on, as to how they felt toward them. Another important fact is that the size of the reporting group is quite large: 3217 people.
As one would expect, including a sizable number of one’s own group increases its overall favorability quite a bit. In the case of Evangelicals, for example, their white members rated the group at 82, versus the 61 overall rating. (Their rating from all others, non-evangelicals, was only 52, slightly above neutral.)
The most negative views of another group happen to go both ways between two not-surprising ones: Evangelicals view atheists at only 25 and atheists view Evangelicals at 28. That would seem to be explained as each viewing the others’ beliefs as detrimental and/or dangerous. I doubt that it has a strong interpersonal dimension: the survey also affirms the common-sense view that when you know someone of another group personally, you are more likely to see them positively than you do the group as a whole.
People are concerned enough about their own or others’ destiny after death that they will study and discuss it at length. This is a recurring topic on many Christian or other blogs (including this one).
Today it has popped up on the popular Christian (and relatively Evangelical, but not rigidly so) blog called Jesus Creed, by Scot McKnight. Kind of an interesting angle, in that it involves the major Evangelical figure, widely respected, the late John R. Stott (British). Here was my contribution to the discussion there, which I think is an important “stand-alone” point, regardless whether you go to McKnight’s post or not:
I was thoroughly Evangelical, including on eternal punishment and substitutionary atonement from high school, through Biola Univ., Talbot Sch. of Theol., Christian Res. Inst. (with Walter Martin) and beyond, to well over age 40. But ongoing, deeper study changed that eventually.
With a different view of the authority of Scripture now, I can see more clearly how people “operate” in terms of difficult doctrines and general belief systems. Seems pretty clear to me that, regardless of which view is truly “biblical”, the vast majority of even conservative Evangelicals do not actually believe in either annihilation OR eternal punishment, whatever their stated belief.
The evidence? That very few people actually ACT like they do. That is, they do not witness continually (or probably much at all), even to friends or family who “don’t know the Lord”, let alone all the other “lost” people they encounter daily. Some may pray more consistently but even they usually won’t pursue every direct means of getting the Gospel across to people, as would be expected for every person transformed and infused by the love of God who ALSO believes most other people around them are bound either for eternal suffering or extinction.
I have some guesses but am not quite sure why we allow ourselves to be so self-deluded (as I once was also) as to really believing in hell or annihilationism. So we do all these intellectual “explorations” or study to supposedly come to the “right” or biblical view… all the time disbelieving, really (and thankfully, as I see it) in the whole hell concept.
I’m just inside this part of July 4th, trying to stay cool! And not wanting to exert my brain a lot either, to write an in-depth article…. SO… some food for thought to go along with all the other food this week-end.
First, in speaking of “civil religion”, is this even a term familiar to you?
If not, the brief article in Wikipedia will get you up to speed on the basics, quickly. There is a lot to explore about and within the subject beyond this, of course… entire books, courses, etc. For here, just the general concept: Civil religion involves religious or quasi-religious ideas, symbols, etc. that are shared by a large portion of a nation (or similar societal structure) across specifically religious lines — the use of “God language” by politicians, prayers or biblical quotes at meetings or commemorations, religious placards (such as the Ten Commandments), or structures such as crosses at public places, etc.
So what is becoming of civil religion, do you think, as our national consciousness seems increasingly polarized? At the least, our political processes are increasingly polarized. (I’ve heard a few researchers or commentators recently emphasizing that it is our political processes that is much more polarized than our citizenry, and I consider this likely to be true.)
Is there even a proper place for “civil” religion in things to do with government, under the US Constitution? Or should the “no establishment” clause rule out even this more common-ground and “generic” kind of religious speech or symbolism?
Just my opinion on this: It is and always will be impossible to draw clear lines between what is “religious” and what is “secular”, so until something becomes clearly excessive–at least to me(!)–I don’t begrudge people some public symbolism, some mixing of God-talk into the political process….
On the other hand, I do believe many traditional Christians are in freak-out mode with the rapidity of change in a number of areas, and this is prompting outcries, lawsuits, etc., that are indeed “excessive” or ill-founded. They are often merely reactionary when there is little or no true threat–for example to “religious liberty” or freedom of speech.
What gets you alarmed, on either “side” (or anywhere) on these issues?