Some interesting thoughts on this question have been raised on a recent FRDB discussion.
Of John the Baptist Professor E.P. Sanders (Jesus and Judaism) writes:
That John himself was an eschatological prophet of repentance is clearly implied in Josephus’s account. Further, the depiction of John and his message in the Gospels agrees with Josephus’s view: the preaching in the desert; the dress, which recalled Elijah; the message of repentance in preparation for the coming judgment. These features correctly pass unquestioned in New Testament scholarship. (p. 92)
Associate Professor James McGrath called on anyone sceptical of the historical Jesus to engage a scholar like Sanders point by point (and cited Jesus and Judaism specifically) and see if they can arrive at different conclusions for historicity.
I have already covered the point in Sanders’ own chapter 1, the Temple Action of Jesus. Here I look at just a small detail, but one about which Sanders makes some remarkably strong assertions about historicity and even external controlling evidence for historicity.
Compare what Sanders writes above with the actual account of Josephus that Sanders says supports everything he says. From Josephus.org:
Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and was a very just punishment for what he did against John called the baptist. For Herod had him killed, although he was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God, and having done so join together in washing. For immersion in water, it was clear to him, could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions. And when others massed about him, for they were very greatly moved by his words, Herod, who feared that such strong influence over the people might carry to a revolt — for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise — believed it much better to move now than later have it raise a rebellion and engage him in actions he would regret.
And so John, out of Herod’s suspiciousness, was sent in chains to Machaerus, the fort previously mentioned, and there put to death; but it was the opinion of the Jews that out of retribution for John God willed the destruction of the army so as to afflict Herod.
How much of what Sanders’ says is “correctly unquestioned” really “agrees with Josephus”, as he clearly infers.
The evidence for John being an eschatological prophet?
Read the Antiquities passage again and you will see it is simply not there. There is not a breath of a hint that John was an eschatological prophet. But Sanders knows this, so why does he say “that John himself was an eschatological prophet of repentance is clearly implied in Josephus’s account”?
That John was an eschatological prophet is less clear in Josephus, who here as elsewhere probably downplays eschatalogical features. (p.371)
Sanders seems to miss the axial point here. The reason Josephus downplays eschatological features, if he does indeed do that here, is because he makes it clear elsewhere he is personally viscerally opposed to such rebellious notions. If he suspected as much of John the Baptist how could he possibly have spoken about him favourably, without a hint of censure at any point at all?
But what evidence is there here in Josephus that such expectations are played down at all? There is no hint of any such expectations in John’s teaching according to Josephus. In the Gospels scholars often claim that Matthew and Luke and John downplay the scene of the baptism of Jesus in Mark’s gospel by (a) having Jesus either apologize for it (Matthew) or (b) not linking Jesus’ baptism with John (Luke) or (c) not mentioning the baptism of Jesus (John). But in Josephus we have no evidence to suggest to us that Josephus had any notion of John being an eschatological prophet.
So why does Sanders claim that Josephus implies that he did preach an eschatological message? Answer:
[Josephus] writes that Herod had him executed because he feared that trouble would result. Baptism and piety do not account for that reaction, and a message of national redemption is thus made probable. (p.371)
Look at Sanders’ reasoning here. He rejects the narrative of Josephus as we have it because it is implausible. It reads, just like the gospels, as a fairy tale. The gospel narrative of John’s death is just as plausible as the reason we read in Josephus, and both reasons are quite similar to each other. Herod fears the very popular John denouncing him for his sins, so has him arrested.
Thus in Herod’s motive for arresting John, Josephus and the gospels closely agree. But Sanders does not find this reason plausible in either tale.
Rather than ask the question, then, about the veracity of Josephus’s portrait of John, Sanders seeks to save his historicity by conjuring up an element from the gospels: that John was preaching the end of the present age and a new age of judgment to come.
Sanders then claims, with dizzying circularity, that the Josephus account supports the Gospel narrative!