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Dialog on John the Baptist – Part 4b

October 26, 2014

Is there much to explore about John the BaptistYes, 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.

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