“Diablog” About John the Baptist in Ancient Literature
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]