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“The Baptist’s” Work and Execution per Historian Josephus – Part 2b

September 17, 2014

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.) 

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