Is there much to explore about John the Baptist? Yes, a surprising amount, so we’re on the topic again…. And there are points of interest with helpful New Testament background and world history information along the way so that we are not merely nit-picking a locust-eater from the wilderness.
More specifically, fellow blogger, Brian and LePort, and I are transitioning (rather slowly) in our John the Baptist discussion from Josephus’ description of John to that in the Gospels.
Like him, I pursue other related (or not-so-related) topics at the same time, one of them being a very cool (and also scholarly) book I’ve read and reviewed just recently here. There will be a screening of the film by the same title, Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe, written and produced by Robert Orlando, in Carlsbad, CA, on Nov. 21, 2014. If you have interest, mention it in a comment or email me for details.
For some setting on today’s topic that some readers may need, Josephus was a first century Jewish historian in Roman employ. He is the main source of much of our knowledge of pre-first-century and first-century Palestine and the Roman Empire in the area, and especially the Jewish revolt against Rome. This truly “history changing” revolt of 66-70 C.E. (A.D.) had antecedents in movements at least somewhat like that of John and earlier (as well as later) ones that were armed rebellions of varying sizes. Josephus’ works are by far our most detailed look into these rebellions and much more about this period. So reports by Josephus take on clear significance for this and a great number of reasons.
I give that background again because it relates to some points Brian and I have raised. His last contribution, found on his blog, www.brianleport.com (part 4a), deals mainly with the overall issue of differences vs. similarities of Josephus’ comments on John the Baptist and the picture given in the Gospels and Acts. I’m not sure just where and how our views of this are not fully lined up, as I think so far, they generally are in line. Differences may well appear more as we move ahead. I don’t recall claiming contradiction between the accounts of Josephus and the Gospels per se, but I may have at least implied that, without meaning it exactly, as I’ll explain in a moment…. It’s a bit complex.
First, I want to emphasize that Josephus’ inclusion of brief remarks about John and what he was and did is important in confirming the historicity of John. Similarly this is so for his mentions of Jesus and James as brother of Jesus and leader of the Jerusalem Jesus-followers (not yet called “Christians”). Combining all three, with a number of other politically or religiously important figures of the time acting “in support”, Josephus offers powerful evidence for the existence of both John and Jesus as real men, not mythical inventions (for any “mythicists” who may be reading, or those interacting with a mythicist).
It also seems clear to me that the main facts about John and his activities do line up in the New Testament (NT) and Josephus. He was a powerful preacher, devoted to spiritual and religious (ritual bodily/ceremonial) purity and to “right living” … a high ethical standard. Beneath this was probably also at least an implied resistance to Roman occupation of the Holy Land, odious as it was to all Jews, although neither he nor Jesus seem to have directly advocated any armed rebellion. But the the sizable and excited followings of each, in the unstable context of the day, was a serious threat to rulers. People knew the history of a couple centuries of resistance movements (vs. Greek and Roman rule), foremost being the successful Maccabean one – 167 to 160 B.C., with a century of self-rule following. So both Jewish regional administrators and Roman overlords were cautious, prone to nip problems in the bud.
Now, I have highlighted “main” facts and “activities” above. There is agreement between our sources (Josephus, NT) that John had a favorable identity as a righteous prophet, that he had a remote-area baptizing ministry pulling from village and city areas, calling people to moral/ethical (and Torah-following) living, and that his movement threatened Antipas, who had him arrested and subsequently beheaded. The Gospels reiterate these factors, with additional details that may well be historical. I don’t see reason to question the “big picture” of John that the Evangelists (writers) give. However, this brings us to where we may well have a difference of significance between Josephus and the Gospels as to John.
The impression I have always gotten from direct reading of the Gospels and from many, many sermons and guided studies of the Bible is that the primary function of John, the real reason his ministry existed, was to prepare the coming of Jesus as Messiah. With that, to introduce and endorse Jesus among Jews who sought God and cared about the welfare of their nation… ultimately to introduce him to the world! I don’t think that is a misreading of the intentions of the Evangelists. The fact that all of them are basically united (with some variations) in emphasizing this is important. (Many details around and in Jesus’ life are not included in all four gospels, including his birth, the infancy escape of Herod, many of the miracles and parables, etc… even resurrection appearances – in Mark, only the later-written ending includes this element although it yet appears in most Bibles, often noted as not part of the original.)
For this reason and others that are clear upon reading, John’s role is made key and emphasized in the Gospels. And John’s baptism of Jesus is included although this presented theological problems historically in the Church (mainly why a sinless Jesus would need to repent and be baptized). This had almost certainly cropped up before the Evangelists wrote. So this inclusion likely indicates an actual event (by validation criterion of “embarrassment”) …. John baptized Jesus. So there was some connection between the two movements and men. But what, really was it?
This points us back to Josephus: We know historically that Jesus’ movement (as carried on in two mostly separate lines of Jerusalem followers and those converted by Paul and his associates outside Palestine) was much greater than John’s, even before the end of the first century (when Josephus had finished “Antiquities”). So John’s famous, “He must increase, but I must decrease” was fulfilled, certainly beyond their lifetimes, as well as within. But did he really say that and the several other things attributed to him about preparing the way for Messiah Jesus – fulfilling a “prophecy” to that effect? That Jesus would baptize with “holy spirit” (more importantly than his water baptism), etc.?
In other words, Josephus seems to confirm who John was and basically what he did. But does his account either validate or question the Gospel contention that John was a special prophet sent by God for the main purpose of identifying and building up Jesus among Jews, along with “turning over”, as it were, his following to Jesus? My reading of the situation would say it questions it more than validates it. Here is why: (First, an aside that subsequent posts in this series will look deeper at just the Gospel statements about John and his movement, his strange mention in Acts re. an Alexandrian [Egypt] connection, etc.)
Josephus clearly writes from an unusual position — a Roman-sympathizing (employed by their rulers) Jewish defender of Judaism. To defend Judaism was particularly important in the decades following the 66-70 A.D. revolt which left Jerusalem destroyed but was costly to Rome as well. And it left major suspicions about Jews (and indirectly, about Christians as tied to Judaism… in this last point, the agendas of Josephus and the Evangelists overlap significantly). In his major works (War – late 70s, and Antiquities - early 90s) Josephus mentions Jesus and Christianity only briefly and seemingly in passing. (His longest Christian-sounding comment on Jesus, though short itself, is almost universally recognized as a much later addition to his text — at least a portion of it.)
So a pertinent question in evaluating Josephus’ summary of what John was about is whether Josephus shows any clear bias against or avoidance of mentioning Jesus and his followers. Without going into the more technical reasons why, I’ll say I don’t think he does. He doesn’t spend much time on specific Jewish religious groups either, but does indicate his preference for the Pharisees, the largest group before the war and the only widely influential one after it (post 70 A.D.) which led into the formation of “rabbinic Judaism”. So, if he knew much about the claims of Jesus and his followers, he had not become a believer. (It is quite possible he did not know many of the details, despite having lived in Galilee and later done extensive research on the lead-up to and execution of the war. He had also been a young general, captured at its beginning.)
If we had any strong suspicion Josephus purposely sought to diminish Jesus or his movement, we might have reason to suspect that he knowingly left out the kind of vital connection of John and Jesus that the Gospels feature prominently and spend considerable “time” on. In a situation like we have here, it is more than a mere “argument from silence” (generally weak) that Josephus fails to bring up Jesus in any way in his discussion of John’s work. That is because all the Gospels make a strong point that John is the “way-preparer” for Jesus, less important than Jesus, a promoter of the work of Jesus. He had no significance once Jesus’ ministry had been launched. In other words, if the NT accounts of the real importance of John are correct, then Josephus is somewhere between deficient and flat wrong.
Now, if Josephus’ picture of John and his movement as largely if not fully apart from any other (including Jesus and his followers) were the only factor raising questions about the Gospel picture, we’d not have particularly strong reason to suspect the latter. However, as we delve further into the matter in coming posts, we will be seeing that a number of important questions arise within the NT texts themselves that make it difficult to conclude that the Evangelists were honestly and reasonably “historical” here…. That they were not manipulating the story of John and working around the complicating likelihood that he did, in fact, baptize Jesus… to further their theological and Christian-support agendas.
To “close the circle” on the fit between Josephus’s report and the Gospels’, I would add that as to what Josephus includes, it probably is reasonable to see it in harmony with the Gospels’ more elaborated account in terms of John’s capture and execution. John may well have criticized Antipas’ marriage, as the Gospels tell us, or his other moral failings … it was his manner, and credible within Josephus’ report. And while some of the scandalous details are probably more for story-telling impact than they are historical, it may well be that Antipas was pressured into killing John when he may not have really wanted to.
One might think that nothing new could yet be written about the Apostle Paul…. Wrong! Especially when an often-overlooked but key endeavor of Paul’s has directly to do with our entire view of what the earliest Christians were like and what they believed.
This book, by independent scholar and filmmaker, Robert Orlando, takes a new angle to understanding what Paul was really trying to accomplish and to the nature of his relationship with the Jerusalem Jesus-followers, James (Jesus’ brother and main leader of the Jerusalem group), and Peter. (It’s not what Christians through the ages have been led to think.) A reasonable-length review cannot fully cover or critique the case Orlando makes… for that you should get the book or the DVD or both… but I will give the main points in the course of the review. First, how the approach of this book and its companion documentary film of the same title is new and different from the usual fare in biblical studies or histories of Christian origins (I’ll cautiously use the common term, “early Church”, largely interchangeably, with the note pertinent to the book’s thesis, that the evidence shows the existence of “early churches” only loosely connected, not a single early church):
We generally get, and personally take on a perspective on Paul and his mission, and him within early Christianity, from a theological vantage point… theological analysis primarily. We usually also get some review of his work geographically in terms of his “missionary journeys” which covered much of “Asia” (western present-day Turkey) and “Acaia” (Greek peninsula) and Macedonia (then and now, just to the north). Only occasionally do studies have some inclusion of, or perhaps a focus on cultural, sociological, and local or regional social factors. In A Polite Bribe Orlando is careful to include these and at least one more factor in effective balance.
That additional factor is discerning and re-creating a narrative for Paul’s life – Paul’s story, from the seven or so letters we can be assured he wrote, mainly to various of the churches he founded. (Orlando properly, in my view, sticks to the seven “undisputed” letters of Paul, and by this is on solid ground.) Paul never develops his own story much, beyond brief summaries of his “resume” (credentials for his authority) and general references to his revelatory experiences of Christ and insights or guidance from God. Much more of what most people “know” of Paul comes from Acts via “Luke” (or whoever was the unnamed author of Luke/Acts). The latter material tends to be more story and biography, but as the book shows, in harmony with many top scholars, Acts is continually and seriously slanted to present a smoothed-over selective history, giving the appearance of a unified and harmonious early Church. This is often in stark contrast with the letters of Paul, “snapshot” style and unfiltered as they are.
Most in focus within this contrast, in which we see Paul regularly at serious odds and angry with the leaders of the Jerusalem “church” and their delegates, is the matter of Paul’s collection of large sums for the support of “the poor” in the Jerusalem community. (The term served double meaning as a moniker for the believers there as well as some who were in material need.) Most of us either entirely missed the long-term focus of Paul on this “polite bribe” arrangement or have slighted the centrality and importance of it for understanding both Paul’s personal mission and his tense and tenuous relationship with the Apostles and “bishop” James in Jerusalem. This dynamic, and dynamic it is, becomes the focus of this fascinating book.
Now what, referred to earlier, is refreshingly different in Orlando’s approach is his perception as story-observer and story-developer (as filmmaker and beyond)… a perspective he imparts to us, along with some explanation of the structure of the archetypal hero’s journey. (This is something we all relate to at one level or another, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.) Here he astutely cites Carl Jung, probably the most spiritually-aware and “into” the deep-subconscious of all psychologists of at least the bulk of the last century if not to date. It is by tracing not just the beliefs and teachings of the Apostle Paul, but his actions, particularly as oriented so heavily around the taking and delivery, in person, of the “collection for the saints”, that Orlando masterfully reveals both the deeper Paul and the true nature and extent of the conflict between Paul and the other Apostles.
So the above explains why you should get and read the book (and watch the DVD or see a screening when it comes to your area… both can be found here). Particularly the DVD, but also the book, is for anyone with interest or curiosity. The book is versatile… it has so many footnotes that it will benefit the scholarly, but it is written plainly and understandably, with the lay or non-religious person in mind, even those with minimal knowledge of the New Testament.
And below are a few other features of the book which enhance its message and its value.
- Orlando avoids speculation re. possible subconscious motives and stays with what most would agree to be expected motivations given what Paul’s own writings show clearly about him and his sense of mission, his goals, etc.
- There is a most interesting “Prologue” where the author sets the stage for his coming narrative with a helpful timeline. Also here Orlando posts a clever open letter to Theophilus, the patron who “Luke”, the author of Acts of the Apostles, addresses. It alerts Theophilus of a major, apparently purposeful omission of Luke… one filled in somewhat by other recent scholars, and now in more detail and focus by Orlando (not the collection itself, but related to it). If Theophilus is currently able to read this letter, I’m sure he’s already become aware of what it alerts him (and us) to, but I loved this being slipped in!
- The notes and bibliography are a treasure-trove in themselves for anyone with interest to pursue Pauline or Christian origins studies in general, or seek to validate or critique Orlando’s points specifically.
[This book was provided by the publisher. This has not influenced my review.]
Here again is the link to the author’s site for more on both the book and the DVD or film screenings: apolitebribe.com
Josephus (late first century Jewish historian in Roman employ) makes a much more substantial reference to John the Baptist and his work than he does to Jesus. Do we know why?
Not really, but fellow blogger Brian LePort and I have been mutually exploring the topic, and related issues, in a series of posts. We are digging out a few clues about that curiosity, and using Josephus’ comments toward figuring out some puzzling things about the connection between John and Jesus. The exact nature of the connection and its implications are much more developed but yet far from clear in the New Testament (NT) itself. It is the only other first century source we have about John, who was executed just east of the Dead Sea in about 28-30 C.E., around the time of Jesus’ coming to prominence.)
I encourage you to read the earlier installments of this “diablog”, through the links below. Brian’s last post is also linked here. And here is a brief summary of what we’ve covered so far:
Josephus seems favorable to John, believing him to have been a sincere preacher. (He does not suggest he was a “prophet” and neither he nor the NT suggest he had a healing or exorcism ministry like that of Jesus… rather Josephus emphasizes how John moved crowds and drew apparently a sizable following…. I’d say at least in the several hundred range, if not low thousands. The larger number seems quite reasonable if one includes those who “came out” to wilderness areas to see/hear John but may not have been baptized or continued following.)
It is the size and enthusiasm of John’s following that Josephus suggests was the reason Herod Antipas (Jewish Tetrarch of the Galilee and Judea region) had him executed as a sort of “preventive” measure against a potential uprising, like several before and after the time of John… These were dangerous to both the Jewish or partially Jewish leaders of the region and to the Romans. We often forget that the social-economic-political situation, intertwined with Jewish religious practices, was very unstable and fluid at the time.
Josephus seems to evidence some familiarity with the theology (underlying thinking) as well as the outward behavior of John in preaching and baptizing… a theology he, as a Jew and defender of Judaism, seems comfortable with. It should also be noted that Josephus clearly made John as a person, and his teaching, sound more Greek/Roman than they were in their Jewish context. This was his general approach throughout his historical writings.
These points, added to others we’ve made in the series so far raise a few important questions:
- Was Josephus aware of but purposely leaving out what the NT repeatedly asserts was the main significance of John’s message and work: to introduce Jesus as Messiah and Son of God? (Josephus’ knowledge or motive is probably beyond answering and we will here soon pivot to a focus on what the NT says about John.)
- The NT clearly presents the role, the person and the significance of Jesus as superior to John… that John’s main purpose and calling was to prepare the way for and elevate Jesus. If this is at all an accurate picture, would it not be something Josephus would be aware of? (O.k… I think we can know something about Josephus’ knowledge, and have strong suspicion here.) While often selective in his reporting, he was one who apparently consulted many sources and does show a seemingly unbiased awareness of James as leader of the Jesus-followers in Jerusalem, and of Jesus himself. So he is not trying excise Jesus and his followers from his record, as one might suspect, perhaps reasonably.
- If Josephus did not miss or gloss over something major, and John was largely independent of Jesus, why does the NT present him so strongly as existing just in order to prepare for Jesus and “decrease” while Jesus would “increase”? (John, as we will later develop from NT statements, clearly had an influence if not a serious “following” even outside of Israel decades later.) The implication of what Josephus says seems to be that John’s following and his influence was actually greater than that of Jesus, at least up to 93 or 94 C.E. when “Antiquities of the Jews” was written. Now the context of his remarks is mainly the actions of Herod Antipas, not John as a separate figure to be expounded on. However, Pontius Pilate was a similarly noteworthy figure who does get attention from Josephus (and other historical records) and yet Josephus does not mention Pilate’s role in the crucifixion of Jesus, or anything else about that event (suggesting it may not have been as “major” or noted at the time as the NT and Christian tradition suggests, or??… but I digress).
At the least, a consideration of this described situation of what Josephus does and does not say about John the Baptist should cause us to ponder more deeply what may be the reality of who John was and just how his teaching and following intersected with and influenced or aided Jesus. For example, is it possible that John’s followers operated either parallel with or even in some kind of “friendly competition” with Jesus’ ministry or Jesus’ followers later?
Here are links to Brian’s previous posts in this series (followed by mine below):
Links to my prior posts in the series:
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).