The image we have from the Gospels of the death of John the Baptist belongs to the world of make-believe fantasy. A man out in the wilderness publicly complains that a king’s marriage is unlawful, so the king has him arrested and imprisoned. Later he is seduced by a dance into making an incautious promise so that he is honour-bound to deliver the head of John on a dinner plate to his new wife.
There’s another story in a historical work by Josephus about how John the Baptist met his death. John had a reputation for teaching people to be good towards one another and reverential before God. His teaching was so persuasive that Herod was frightened John might decide to tell all his followers to rise up and rebel against their king, so had him sent off to prison to be executed. (Antiquities 18.5.2)
The first thing one might note in Fredriksen’s discussion of these twin implausibilities is that she has chosen to present her discussion through “a rhetoric that supports the assumption of historicity” (Thomas L. Thompson, The Mythic Past, p.38). Despite the fairy-tale (Fredriksen calls it “folkloric”) tone of the Gospel story, she refers to it repeatedly as “a report” (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, pp. 190-1).
But Frekriksen does acknowledge that neither explanation for the death of John the Baptist is plausible.
[W]hile both Josephus and the Gospels say that John was executed by Antipas [Herod], it is hard to see why. Mark, and following him, Matthew relate a story of John’s criticism of Herod’s marriage to Herodias. The story folkloricly relates how Antipas was essentially tricked by his own incautious promise to Herodias’ daughter into killing John (Mk 6:17-29//Mt 14:3-12). It sheds little light on Josephus’ report: Afraid of John’s effect on the people — “eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything they did” — Antipas did away with him in a sort of preemptive strike.
But a message of “piety” and “righteousness” does not sound like a summons to sedition. (pp. 190-1)
Fredriksen then points to what “historians typically” do to explain John’s death. They combine the two stories. The Gospels and Josephus are imaginatively melded into one. One might be frowned upon for facetiously suggesting that this sounds a little like a principle that asserts that the most plausible explanation can be found by combining two implausible explanations. Or, where one is faced with two implausible explanations, the plausible one can be found by adding the two together. But that would be making serious scholarship sound a bit silly. (I think that any silliness is really the product of scholars beginning with flawed assumptions, as hinted at in my Thompson quotation above, and is not a personal reflection on the abilities or other achievements of the scholars themselves.)
So here is what the amalgam of two implausible explanations looks like according to Fredriksen.
- Perhaps John criticized Antipas for violating Levitical laws of purity by marrying his brother’s wife:
- Leviticus 18:16 — Do not have sexual relations with your brother’s wife; that would dishonor your brother.
- Leviticus 20:21 — If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother.
- Perhaps such a criticism (extrapolated from the Gospels) would influence the subjects of Antipas to think he no longer had a right to remain their king (extrapolated from Josephus).
- Perhaps John’s message for the coming Kingdom of God (from the Gospels) would imply that Antipas should feel threatened by John’s audience (from Josephus).
Fredriksen remarks on the inadequacy of the last hybrid explanation:
The puzzle here would be why the Romans, in whose territory (the Judean west bank of the Jordan) John also worked, would not have executed him themselves. (Perhaps the fact that John’s followers came and went, and were never massed at one time, was enough in Roman eyes to make him seem innocuous; but then, why not Antipas too?)
So what does Fredriksen conclude given the inadequacy of either the Gospels or Josephus to make plausible sense of the execution of John?
All we can know for certain is that this manifestly prophetic figure died at the hands of a secular ruler. (p. 191)
This strikes me as a very odd conclusion. One senses that Fredriksen has been misled by her own rhetoric supporting the assumption of historicity.
There is nothing at all in Josephus that indicates that John the Baptist is a “manifestly prophetic figure”. That is drawn entirely from the Gospels. Moreover, that Gospel portrait is “manifestly” drawn from the literary cloth of the prophetic writings of Isaiah and Malachi, and the biblical portrayals of Elijah. Even the death of John the Baptist is widely recognized as a foil for the death of Jesus. Josephus knows nothing of these trappings. They are there to craft a dramatic entrance for the Son of God in the Gospel narrative. Josephus offers no supporting evidence for their historicity at all.
That leaves us with Josephus’s “report”. It makes no sense in its account of John’s death, as Fredriksen acknowledges. This is not the only implausible/non-sensical feature of Josephus’s account. Josephus tells us that Antipas (Herod) had John imprisoned in the Macherus castle. But only a few sentences previously he had said that this same castle did not belong to Herod, but to another king who attacked Herod.
Should we assume the authenticity of everything we find in Josephus? Frank Zindler does suggest a number of reasons for suspecting this passage about John the Baptist was not original to Josephus.
I would think the more prudent option is to treat the authenticity of Josephus’ account of John the Baptist with caution, and to regard the Gospel accounts as entirely literary and theological rhetoric.
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