When neither the Gospel nor Josephus makes sense

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by Neil Godfrey

Execution of John the Baptist
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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)

Paula Fredriksen, author of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, is one scholar who acknowledges that neither account makes much sense.

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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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “When neither the Gospel nor Josephus makes sense”

  1. Well, I just treat the story of John and Herodias and Salome as a rewrite by the author of “Mark” of the story of Esther from the Hebrew Bible.
    She who pleased the foreign king and was rewarded by him with the death of her enemy Haman.

    In the relatively few lines that it takes for the author of “Mark” to tell his story there are not only the similarities above that are very strong indicators of literary borrowing but some of the lines are near verbatim copy.

    In the verses, “Mark” 6.14 to 29, the author manages to make so many errors it is transparent that the story is not an historical report.
    Such as:
    1. 6.14 “King Herod ….”
    Herod was not a king, that title is wrong, he was a tetrarch. The author of g”Matthew” was aware of the error and corrected it when he rewrote the story.
    “Matthew” 14.1 “At that time Herod the tetrarch ….”

    [Interestingly “Matthew” forgets he changed Herod from king to tetrarch and later refers to Herod as “king” at 14.9.
    Goodacre [or maybe Goulder] cites this as an example of ‘fatigue’, where a writer is changing parts of another’s story and forgets some of the changes he has made and reverts to the original. There is another such in “Matthew”s rewrite of this “Markan” story.]
    Lousy editing and proofreading, it was not easy to do such in those days.]

    2.6.17 “Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife….”
    Again, an historical error.
    Herodias had previously been married to a different brother than Philip.
    Some mss of “Matthew” correct this error by having ‘his brother’s wife’ and omitting the [wrong] name.

    3. Salome [actually unnamed] dancing lasciviously before a bunch of drunken males??? A princess!!! The [step]daughter of the king/tetrarch!! No, simply not on according to the mores of the social class at that time.

    4. 6.22 ” [Herod] Ask me whatever you wish and I will grant it”
    Compare this to the lines of the king in Esther 5.3 [repeated at 7.1]
    “What is your request? It shall be given to you, ….”

    But the borrowing becomes even more obvious when author “Mark” has Herod go on to say:
    “whatever you ask of me I will give to you – even half my kingdom”
    Remember Herod was not a king but a tetrarch of Rome, and Rome would not have been impressed by him transferring half their territory that they allowed him to manage to some young woman cos she danced nicely.
    Herod did not have a ‘kingdom’ to give away half of such.
    The author is unaware of this and is simply transposing the words of the Esther story and characters where the king goes on to say, in the latter section of Esther 5.3:
    “It shall be given to you even to the half of my kingdom”.

    Literary borrowing, not historical witnessing.

    Now maybe there is also a relationship to Josephus’ account.
    Just as “Matthew” changed elements of “Mark'”s story so, perhaps, “Mark” not only borrowed from Esther for the plot outline but also from Josephus for the character of John the Baptist.
    Or perhaps, as Zindler seems to suggest, Josephus’ account is an interpolated rendering of ‘Mark’s” story written by someone down the track.
    Fascinating stuff.

    Only one thing seems clear, history this ain’t.

  2. Paula Fredriksen thinks the chronology of Mark’s (hence, Matthew’s and Luke’s) gospel is implausible, because if Jesus’ visit to Jerusalem was his first and last, then the disturbance that caused Pilate to act would have ended in mass arrests and indiscriminate punishment. John’s chronology is also implausible, since Jesus drives the money changers out of the Temple at the very beginning of his ministry. Still, she likes the idea of multiple trips to Jerusalem. It would provide a handy explanation as to why Pilate and the Sanhedrin concluded that the Galilean Goober needed to be silenced, but that his movement posed no real political threat.

    The solution is to treat the New Testament like a Chinese menu. We’ll take low Christology from Mark, the earliest Q sayings from Matthew and Luke, and the chronology of John, please — also known as “The Plausibility Luncheon Special,” which comes with tea, egg rolls, and a fortune cookie.

    But we still end up with a Pilate who acts with surgical precision, in conflict with his reputation as a bloodthirsty tyrant, and a Sanhedrin who wants Jesus killed because…why? Jesus is dangerous, but his movement isn’t? We’re still stuck with the public execution of a supposedly influential preacher near Passover, which the Judean authorities must have worried would spark an open revolt. Why not keep him in prison? Why not kill him in private, like John the Baptist?

    Fredriksen is right to focus on the problem of why Jesus died alone, but the cut-and-paste explanation she offers simply doesn’t answer all the nagging questions surrounding the arrest and crucifixion.

  3. mcduff — one more reason to label the gospel narrative as fiction

    j. quinton — one more reason to label the josephan narrative as suspect

    tim widowfield — I have long wanted to do a detailed review of this book by Paula Fredriksen for similar reasons that led me to do my detailed chapter by chapter comments on Richard Bauckham’s “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses”. I was stunned that a work could meet with such enthusiastic and widespread popular acceptance but be so in-your-face logically and methodologically flawed. Then to read of the respect other biblical scholars penned for this work was one of the beginnings of my decline in respect for much of what passes for scholarship among not a few biblical scholars.

    1. In general I respect their level of knowledge. I wish I knew a tenth of what Fredriksen or Bauckham knows. However, like you, I can’t for the life of me follow the logic that gets them from point A to point B.

      For example, lately I’ve been reading E.P. Sanders’ Jesus and Judaism slowly and carefully, because I’ve been told it’s so much clearer and convincing than his more popular, accessible work, The Historical Figure of Jesus. I regret to say that I’m still not getting it. Somehow he gets from unprovenanced, late, contradictory literary works to “secure facts.”

      I’m beginning to wonder if you have to bring a little faith to the table in order to swallow this stuff.

  4. Mainstream historians have never really worked out why Jesus was crucified.

    Nor have they worked out why Jews should start preaching that if you have faith in this crucified criminal, you didn’t even need the Law.

    2 Corinthians 2
    7 Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? 9 If the ministry that brought condemnation was glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness!

    I wonder how Paul could think of Jesus’s ministry as ‘glorious’, when it involved disciples scrabbling for grains in a field, a betrayal by a hand-picked disciple, and a crucifixion and shoddy burial.

  5. I don’t think “the man” was out there in the wilderness complaining. It was more than likely a priest, and a high priest to boot, kicked out of the temple. The complaint was about marriage to a foreigner, Aretas’s daughter – “He shall not marry as wife any daughter of the nations.” (Temple Scroll 57:16). The nice guy was “John” the king. It was the king who “‘commanded’ the Jews to exercise virtue”.

  6. It wouldn’t bother me if this passage was interpolated, but, as I metnoned before, I still have a hard time believing that because there is nothing “Christian” about it (though it could certainly be “Jewish Christian”), and Origen refers to it. Who would (or could) have interpolated it before Origen’s time?

    It’s easier to think Josephus or a later scribe made a mistake about who controlled Machaerus, but you’ve got me wondering.

  7. JW:
    “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).”

    I fear that “Mark’s” related story contains an even higher dose of likely fiction than either you or Frekriksen (Jesus, don’t let Hofkman see this) suspect. “Mark” likely wrote:

    1) It was King Herod.

    2) King Herod was married to Herod(ias)

    3) King Herod and his wife Herod(ias)’s daughter here was Herod(ias)

    So just as “Matthew” made a whole ass out of himself with the triumphal entry, so too did “Mark” make a whole Herodiasses out of himself.

    See my related post at FRDB:



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