5 reasons to suspect John the Baptist was interpolated into Josephus

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by Neil Godfrey

Said to be the part of the skull (de cranis) of John the Baptist, in reliquarium, Residenz, Munich

Image via Wikipedia

Frank Zindler (The Jesus the Jews Never Knew) gives five reasons to think that Josephus said nothing at all about John the Baptist.

This is something that is not generally welcomed by those who are primarily interested in defending the possibility of any independent (non Christian) evidence at all for the historical background to the gospel narrative, but it is of interest to anyone who is interested in examining the evidence with an open mind.

Unlike the interpolation of the Jesus passage(s) into Josephus, Zindler suggests that the John the Baptist passage was inserted by a Jewish Christian or “an apologist for one of the myriad ‘heretical’ sects which are known to have existed from the earliest periods of Christian history.” (p. 96) One possibility he offers is even a pre-Christian Baptist of some sort.

Because there are details of John the Baptist in Josephus that are at odds with those we find in the Gospels many scholars, writes Zindler, have been persuaded the words about John the Baptist really were composed by Josephus. But Zindler reminds us that

many non-gospel views of the Baptist existed during the first three centuries (indeed, a decidedly non-gospel type of John the Baptist holds a very prominent place in the Mandaean religion to this day), and an unknown number of them might have held the opinion now supposed to have been that of Josephus. (p. 97)

Here are Zindler’s reasons for believing the passage in Josephus is a forgery.

Reason #1

The Baptist material intrudes into its context quite roughly. The paragraphs on either side of it follow perfectly if the Baptist section is removed.

I quote the paragraphs in full at the end of this post.

Paragraph [1] describes a king (Aretas) attacking Herod’s army and soundly thrashing it. Herod complains to the Roman emperor, Tiberius. Tiberius orders his military leader in Syria to immediately respond by attacking Aretas.

Paragraph [2] informs us of John the Baptist, and explains that some Jews thought that the reason for Herod’s defeat was his unjust treatment of John the Baptist. An account of John the Baptist’s teaching and practices follows. This is followed by an account of Herod arresting John sending him to a castle of Macherus where he was executed.

Paragraph [3] opens with the Roman military leader in Syria immediately preparing to wage war on Aretas and leaving for the heart of Aretas’s kingdom in Petra.

Reason #2

The passage about John the Baptist says Herod sent John to the castle of Macherus to be killed. Yet only two sentences before the Paragraph [1] summarized above, Josephus had written that the castle of Macherus did not belong to Herod, but to the king who soon afterwards attacked him.

Zindler notes that some argue that Macherus was really a part of the kingdom of Herod. But even if this were so, it is irrelevant to the argument. Josephus clearly believed it was part of the kingdom of Herod’s enemy-to-be. He could hardly a few sentences later have had Herod using the castle as if it were his own.

Reason #3

In the John the Baptist paragraph the author writes that the reason Herod’s army was defeated by Aretas was because God was punishing him for his unjust treatment of John.

But nope, that’s not the view of Josephus elsewhere. A few paragraphs later (18.7.2) Josephus writes:

And thus did God punish Herodias for her envy at her brother, and Herod also for giving ear to the vain discourses of a woman.

Reason #4

Josephus makes no mention of John the Baptist when discussing Herod in his other book, The Wars of the Jews.

Reason #5

John the Baptist is not mentioned in the early Greek table of contents to the Antiquities of Josephus, but he is found in the later Latin version.

The passages in Antiquities Book 18, chapter 5, paras 1-3

(from the Sacred Texts site)

1.  . . . . 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; 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.. 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.

2. 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: 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. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very 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 any thing 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 would be too late. 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 to him.

3. So Vitellius prepared to make war with Aretas, having with him two legions of armed men; he also took with him all those of light armature, and of the horsemen which belonged to them, and were drawn out of those kingdoms which were under the Romans, and made haste for Petra, and came to Ptolemais. . . .

What’s left?

That leaves the Gospel narratives of John the Baptist. The earliest of those describe John’s appearance and preaching as a fulfilment of prophecy. He is described as a new Elijah. The biblical authors do not attempt to explain John the Baptist as anything other than a fulfilment of prophecy, and they appeal to the passages in the Prophets, as well as the literary descriptions of the prophet Elijah, their sources of information about him.

That still leaves open the question of the John the Baptist of the Mandaean religion.

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  • John
    2011-01-30 04:29:36 UTC - 04:29 | Permalink

    Regarding Reason #1: Is this the only example of digression in Josephus? Maybe the intrusion isn’t unusual (e.g., Life 367; “And so much shall be said concerning Justus [of Tiberias], which I am obliged to add by way of digression”). I could stand more enlightenment on this issue.

    Regarding Reason #3, perhaps Herod was “divinely” punished twice, once for killing John, for which his army was destroyed, then for appearing to prepare for a revolt, for which he was banished to Gaul by Caligula. In any event, it wasn’t the view of Josephus that Herod’s loss to Aretas was divine punishment, but rather the view of “some of the Jews,” so I don’t see any contradiction here.

    Regarding #4, Eisenman points out that Josephus doesn’t mention several people in the Jewish War that appear in his later works, like Banus, James (perhaps), Jesus (perhaps, even though he discusses Pilate there), Onias the Righteous, Saddok the associate of Judas the Galilean, James and Simon the sons of Judas the Galilean, etc. (JBJ pg. 61). Eisenman points out that Josephus “seems to have been careful about a good many characters with subversive or religious tendencies” in the Jewish War, but that by the 90’s he “felt increasingly secure, and accordingly all these new characters pepper his narrative” (JBJ pg. 63). Or perhaps he simply had access to more information, such as from Agrippa II, as he mentions in Life (366). “This in itself can explain some of the new additions” (JBJ pg. 64).

    #2 and #5 are interesting, but I wouldn’t find them convincing enough by themselves.

    It’s hard to imagine how a Jewish Christian or other heretic could have interpolated this passage into Josephus. If so, it had to be sometime before Origen’s reference to it in Contra Celsus, before even the reference to Jesus was “noticed” by Eusebius. Just hard to imagine how it could have been accomplished without the imperial backing that Eusebius had.

    Besides, Josephus seemed to like the Essenes (in my view the DSS group), describing them in more detail than other sects. And he presents his three years with the John-like Banus in a positive light (Life 11-12), as well as perhaps James (especially if the references to Jerusalem falling because of his death are genuine, but even what we do have in the received text is enough, if that is also genuine).

    • 2011-01-30 07:07:15 UTC - 07:07 | Permalink

      Without footnotes digressions were usual enough among ancient historians, Josephus included. But as your example illustrates, the author usually relays some awareness of doing this. It is the gracelessness of the way the paragraph “fits in” that stands out.

      Zindler remarks on the variant account of the reason for Herod’s punishment that this is stated without any indicator of Josephus’s alternative view. (Personally, I see the attempts to harmonize Josephus here as comparable to the harmonization efforts of the resurrection narratives in the Gospels, or to those who argue that Jesus cleansed the Temple twice. I might be persuaded otherwise if we found other instances in Josephus of similar presentations of contrary thoughts on divine purposes.)

      • John
        2011-01-30 08:31:14 UTC - 08:31 | Permalink

        I do wonder what more similar examples of digression might exist in Josephus. I happened to notice that one because it was near something else I was looking up, and I did think that it is different than the John the Baptist passage because it shows an awareness of the digression, as you said. I’d like to know what, if any, other graceless intrusions exist.

        But I regret being perplexed by the way your other comments are phrased, to such an extent that I don’t know how to respond to them.

        • 2011-01-30 12:28:19 UTC - 12:28 | Permalink

          Hi John, — the perplexity is from my analogy to harmonization of the gospels? Maybe that was a tendentious comparison.

          What I meant to indicate was that while some may not see an absence of conflict in two different accounts on logical grounds (there being no logical need for a conflict — e.g. in one case it is said what some Jews think and in another what Josephus thinks of the same matter), there are broader considerations that come into play, such as how we might normally expect an author to express himself.

          I tend to agree with the alternative possibilities you raise. This is why I have never quite known what to do with John the Baptist as a historical figure. I have in past posts addressed other reasons some scholars have expressed some scepticism (no more than that) about John the Baptist in Josephus. One is mythologist Joseph Campbell who finds it curious that we find in Josephus a note on a man whose name bears such a remarkable similarity to the god who was the guardian of the ritual materials he deployed, or something similar to that.)

          The John the Baptist in the gospels is an entirely literary figure. There’s not a detail that is not crafted from OT literature.

          I have sometimes been asked to reconsider the historicity of the gospel accounts on the grounds that Josephus writes about John the Baptist, and that we can therefore trust his existence to be well established.

          I did my Zindler post to indicate that there is room for some doubt about his appearance in Josephus.

          It might be original, but it might not. I would want to do a more thorough examination of Josephus myself before going any further than that. And even then I would not be surprised if I were not able to do not much more than shift a probability view a few points either way.

          I don’t believe this is hyperscepticism as some might like to claim. It is normal healthy scepticism. It makes no difference to my views on the historicity of the Gospel narratives one way or the other. But it would help to be sure either way in order to explore explanations.

          What disappoints me is the dogmatism of some scholars who ought to know better (they ought to check facts like these and ask the questions), and their unscholarly black and white statements.

          Thanks for your comments.

  • John
    2011-01-30 06:53:18 UTC - 06:53 | Permalink

    Also, regarding what other sources of information do we have about John the Baptist, for what it’s worth there is the Slavonic Josephus. I don’t know if it is genuine but it has a refreshing ring of truth to it to me -at least from what I can tell here: http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/gno/gjb/gjb-3.htm

    Regardless of its provenance, it reads curiously like someone like a Josephus observing a DSS-style Judaism at an important time in its evolution.

    And, incidently, isn’t there another possible alternative Josephus preserved in Hipolytus’ Refutation describing, again “like” a Josephus might, the Essenes being more DSS-like, and even perhaps the Pauline Christian version? It’s been awhile since I’ve thought about this stuff so I think I’ll take another look at it.

    • 2011-01-30 12:44:50 UTC - 12:44 | Permalink

      I would also need to take time to have another look at these. One thing to keep in mind, I think, is that Josephus tends to model himself according to a template of an OT prophet, too. This has to do with the nature of history being largely a matter of a revelatory exercise among early Jews and Christians. This approach led, as with possibly Philo’s Therapeutai, to possible literary creations of ideal communities through which authors might express their own ideals. (Compare Plato’s “noble lie/myth”.)

      Verisimilitude is often a practiced art among writers of fiction, so I am always wary of arguments appealing to a “ring of truth”. I think a lot of issues like familiarity with the key ideas come into play in such judgements.

      The whole question of the origins of John the Baptist, Simon Magus, and such, whether more than literary, is a fascinating one. I am too daunted by the problems of the evidence to know how to approach it all, however.

      • maryhelena
        2011-01-31 03:21:43 UTC - 03:21 | Permalink

        It’s an interesting question whether Josephus simply modelled himself upon OT prophets or whether he actually saw himself as being a prophetic figure. Here is what Rebecca Gray has to say:

        “One question remains: how much of this self-portrait is true? That is, how much of Josephus’ portrayal of himself as a prophet reflects what he actually said and did and thought at the time of the events he is depicting, and how much of it is a result of later reflection and literary elaboration?”

        “This is, of course, an extraordinarily difficult question to answer. There is no denying that the picture we now possess of Josephus as a prophet has been refined and developed in various ways. For example, the ideas that he claims first came to him in a moment of prophetic revelation at Jotapata – that God was punishing the Jews for their sins and that fortune had gone over to the Romans – have become major interpretive themes in the War as a whole. Josephus also sometimes reinforces the prophetic claims that he makes for himself by subtle changes in his presentation of the ancient prophets. And it is probable that, with the passage of time, Josephus’ image of himself as a prophet became clearer in his own mind.”

        “In my view, however, it is extremely unlikely that Josephus created this image out of nothing.”

        Prophetic Figures in Late Second Temple Jewish Palestine: The Evidence from Josephus: Rebecca Gray

  • John
    2011-01-30 07:13:51 UTC - 07:13 | Permalink

    Yes, here it is. I know it’s a late source but, again like the Slavonic Josephus, to me it seems to describe (even more than the received Josephus) something remarkably similar to the DSS sect, and I tend to believe it is a genuine description whatever its origin.


  • 2011-01-31 11:42:59 UTC - 11:42 | Permalink

    Reasons #3 and #4 are mostly uninteresting–Josephus does not say it is his own opinion that Herod was punished for killing John, only that there were some who thought that. And as the commenter “John” points out above, there are many figures mentioned only in one of War and Antiquities, providing a list to which I would add the Samaritan prophet also described in Ant. 18.

    The other three make an interesting argument, one that’s been going around for a few years now, and I’d be inclined to take it a bit more seriously if it weren’t for the fact that presumably Zindler (and others who agree with him) also think the section on Jesus in Antiquities is an interpolation. But that, it is claimed, was written by a Christian, whereas here Zindler argues that the passage on John the Baptist was possibly written by a non-Christian. In which case we need to assume that Antiquities was somehow interpolated twice, once by a Christian, and then again by a non-Christian follower of John the Baptist. This is not impossible, but begins to add layers of complexity that make the overall argument ad hoc and implausible. Especially since the passage about Jesus is claimed to have been interpolated by Eusebius himself. So…did Eusebius just happen to have a copy of Antiquities that had already been interpolated with a passage about John the Baptist?

    It would make much more sense, and would be a simpler argument, if the passages about both Jesus and John the Baptist were interpolated by the same person. But if it were Eusebius who interpolated the Jesus-passage, then he can’t have been the one to interpolate the John-passage, because it seems to be a non-canonical version of the circumstances of John’s death.

    Thus, a very big reason to assume Josephus was the author here is that despite reasons #1, #2, and #5 above, it’s a much simpler assumption than anything having to do with a non-Eusebian interpolation of the John-passage (which, again, is what must have happened, one way or another, if the passage is in fact interpolated, because Eusebius can’t be the author of the John-passage).

    All these considerations muddy the waters considerably, and may even push the evidence for the Jesus-passage towards authenticity, so I have a hard time telling which arguments to take more seriously here.

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  • 2016-01-05 21:29:33 UTC - 21:29 | Permalink

    I believe that John the Baptist was a very Influential Religious Person at the Time of his Death in the Fortress of Machareus for being a treat to Jewish and Roman Authority in 36 AD and became a Martyr for the Jewish Cause despite his Preeching of Repentance for Our Sins! The Birth of Josephus in 37 AD, his Childhood Jewish Teachings with his becoming a Follower of Banus for three Years, similar to that of Jesus when he was a Follower of John the Baptist for three years until the Incarceration and the Execution of the Baptist. Jesus on the Spirit of John, continued the Ministry and was Crucified six months later during Passover.

  • Anonymous
    2016-03-29 00:19:55 UTC - 00:19 | Permalink

    Your article citing author Frank Zinder’s belief that the paragraph pertaining to John the Baptist found in the works of Josephus is an interpolation made by an early Jewish Christian is an intriguing one and certainly deserving of some serious scrutiny. However, after reviewing the five reasons that he cites I have found his supposition to be wholly without merit. So lets review then his five reasons one at a time.

    1). The Baptist material intrudes into the context “quite roughly” and is thus likely an interpolation. This is simply not true, as Josephus merely includes the paragraph in order to bring up the commonly held belief among many Jews of the time that Herod Antipas had suffered a devastating loss to his opponent King Aretas because he had murdered John the Baptist.

    2). Herod sent John the Baptist to the castle in Machaerus and yet Josephus mentions just two paragraphs previously that Machaerus was then under the command of his soon to be rival King Aretas of Petra. The reason for this is that when Herod sent John the Baptist to Machaerus he was at that time married to Phasaelis, who was the daughter of King Aretas, and thus had the authority to send him there to be killed. The armed contest between Herod and Aretas was due to the fact that Herod had left his first wife and married Herodias, who had been the wife of his half-brother Herod Archelaus. So no discrepancy there either in regards to any incongruity found in the text – though the gospels claim that the husband of Herodias was another brother of Herod named Philip.

    3). A different account of why Herod was punished by God is given by Josephus a few paragraphs later on in his works. This reason is essentially a non-starter. Herod Antipas was later banished from his kingdom along with his wife Herodias for conspiring to start a rebellion and his comments on the fate of those two people refers to a completely different incident that had occurred several years subsequent to Herod’s military defeat.

    4). Josephus makes no mention of John the Baptist when discussing Herod in his other book, The Wars of the Jews. The reason for this is that John the Baptist is mentioned only indirectly by Josephus as being in the opinion of some the primary cause of divine retribution from God as a result of having being unjustly murdered by Herod.

    5). John the Baptist is not mentioned in the early Greek table of contents of the Antiquities of Josephus, but he is found in the later Latin version. The paragraph itself however is found in all of the earliest extant Greek copies, the oldest of which dates from the 10th Century C.E. The oldest Latin version however dates from the 6th Century C.E., and the reason no doubt that John the Baptist is mentioned in the table of contents of that edition is that when the Latin copy was made Italy had become a Christian nation and thus it was thought appropriate to make a notable reference to the paragraph mentioning John the Baptist.

    So none of Mr. Zinder’s five reasons really add up to any weight, nor is there any justification that the passage was carefully placed there by an early Jewish Christian; for unlike the controversial Testimonium Flavianum passage, there was no reason to insert such a paragraph and especially one that contradicts much of what is told in the Gospel of Mark concerning John the Baptist. The real question that we should be asking is which of the two accounts of the man known as John the Baptist is most credible; is it what is told in the Gospel of Mark, or what is written in the works of Josephus? Was it really Herodias who had encouraged Herod Antipas to put John the Baptist in chains at Machaerus because he had criticized that Herod Antipas had married the wife of his half brother Herod Archelaus; and then after being imprisoned in the castle, was it really Herodias who enticed her daughter Salome to request the head of John the Baptist? Or was the real villain Herod Antipas who was concerned about the sizable crowds that had grown around John and fearful of an uprising decided to have him imprisoned and subsequently put to death? The fact that Herod’s previous wife Phasaelis, whom he divorced in favor of Herodias, had to ask for his permission in order to visit the castle at Machaerus, where she had planned her escape from him and was able to return to her father, makes it much more likely that Herod made all the major decisions and that both his wives had little say in influencing any events, which leads one to believe that the account told by Josephus is by far the more accurate of the two, particularly as his description of how the baptism process worked closely parallels the practice of the Essenes, as is written in the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is highly unlikely that John the Baptist went around Baptizing people for the forgiveness of their sins as this was then done through animal sacrifice in accordance with Mosaic Law. So here again the account told by Josephus is the most plausible, and he seems to be aware that some people, perhaps early Christians, had an incorrect view of the purpose of Baptism and so sought to correct the record — the real purpose was to purify the soul and then consecrate one’s life to the will of God; that is to lead a Holy life.

    A final thought on the intriguing subject, according to several authors, judging by the events recounted by Josephus the murder of John the Baptist took place in approximately 36 C.E., which is six full years after the generally accepted date of the crucifixion of Jesus; and if this is in fact true, then John the Baptist died quite sometime after the brief ministry of Jesus and not several months before, which is an additional reason to be skeptical of what is reported in the gospels, and why we are fortunate to have that informative account of the man who baptized Jesus preserved for posterity in his works for anyone to speculate on as they may wish to consider most proper.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-03-29 00:30:42 UTC - 00:30 | Permalink

      Thanks for your reply. I would have to return to Frank Zindler’s (not Zinder, by the way) book to refresh my memory of his more fully expressed arguments before responding. What you read here is of course just a bare summary of key points I thought significant.

      (Why do you want to remain anonymous?)

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