On John the Baptist per Josephus – and the murder of Zechariah son of Jehoiada

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by Neil Godfrey

Let’s continue looking at Rivka Nir’s proposal that the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities of the Jews was not part of Josephus’s original work. We continue from John the Baptist’s Place in Josephus’s Antiquities. But be warned. I get sidetracked and explore the broader evidence for both Christian and Jewish views on divine retribution for killing prophets and especially focus on the story that appears to have been the paradigm for all such accounts — the murder of Zechariah in 2 Chronicles.

In my previous post the point was made that the John the Baptist passage appears to have been dislocated from where it would more naturally fit. That is, we have this flow of thought ….

  1. Josephus informs readers that Herod and the king of Nabatean Arabia, Aretas, had a quarrel.
  2. This quarrel, Josephus relates, was over Herod plotting to divorce Aretas’s daughter.
  3. Aretas went to war against Herod and defeated him.
  4. Herod then appealed to Tiberius, the Roman emperor, to punish Aretas. Tiberius ordered his general Vitellius to invade Aretas’s kingdom and bring Aretas back to Rome dead or alive.
  5. The John the Baptist passage appears here as the explanation, according to some Jews, for why Herod’s army had been defeated
  6. Vitellius is said to obey Tiberius’s order and his march towards Aretas’s kingdom is described, along with how he pulled back from his venture on learning of the death of emperor Tiberius.

Rivka Nir suggests that the more natural place for Josephus to give the supposed reason for Herod’s defeat would be between #3 and #4 above.

Rivka Nir also points to the discrepancy between the gospel’s dating the death of John to the time of Jesus (presumably about 30 CE or a little before) and the Josephan account that is set at 36 CE. “How could Josephus claim that the Jews credited Herod’s defeat to John’s death, which preceded it by six years?” (p. 44) But I wonder why the gospel timing of JB’s death should be taken as any more authoritative than Josephus’.

Further, the idea that Herod was defeated in war as divine punishment for unjustly killing a figure prominent in the Christian tradition reminds us of later Christian authors — Hegesippus, Origen and Eusebius — blaming the fall of Jerusalem on the unjust execution of James the brother of Jesus. Nir sees both accounts — the unjust murders of John the Baptist and James the Lord’s brother — as “presumably based on the causal relationship created by Christian theology between the Jewish rejection and crucifixion of Jesus and the temple’s destruction.”(pp. 44f)

I was interested in the evidence for the early Christian authors promoting this idea of a causal relationship between the crucifixion of Jesus and the fall of Jerusalem so followed up as many of Nir’s citations as I could. Here is what I found (all bolded emphasis is mine):

The account of John the Baptist was more certainly present in the text of Josephus’ Antiquities (XVIII. 116-19). The tetrarch Herod feared sedition or revolt because of John’s preaching, even though he had urged nothing but virtue and piety, and therefore executed him. The moral Josephus draws is one which his Christian readers found attractive. To some of the Jews the (later] destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John.’ Again, ‘the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod.’ Origen, and especially Eusebius, shared this kind of view.

(Grant, Eusebius as Church Historian, 101)

Translated from the French and relating the fall of Jerusalem to the execution of the brother of Jesus,

Je me propose de montrer que, dans A.J., XX, 197-203, tout ce qui concerne Jacques lui-même a été frauduleusement interpolé pour remplacer un autre témoignage aujourd’hui disparu, mais encore connu par Origène, et présentant la chute de Jérusalem comme le châtiment immédiat d’un assassinat illégal de Jacques, tout comme la défaite d’Hérode Antipas était présentée comme celui du martyre de saint Jean Baptiste.

I propose to show that, in A.J, XX, 197-203, everything concerning James himself was fraudulently interpolated to replace another testimony which has now disappeared, but still known by Origen, and presenting the fall of Jerusalem as the immediate punishment for an illegal assassination of James, just as the defeat of Herod Antipas was presented as that of the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist.

(Herrmann, Chrestos, 101)

Then in Steve Mason’s book on Josephus and the New Testament:

It has been a standard feature of Christian preaching through the ages that the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 was really God’s decisive punishment of the Jewish people for their rejection of Jesus, who had died around the year 30. The earliest Christian sermon that we possess, outside of the NT, is largely a tirade against the Jews for their treatment of Jesus. Melito, bishop of Sardis in the late 100s, declares that the Jewish people and its scripture became an “empty thing” with the arrival of Christianity and the gospel (Passover Sermon 43); only those Jews who believe in Jesus have any ongoing religious validity. Melito accuses the Jews as a nation of having “murdered” Jesus and asserts that their current suffering (after 70 and a further failed revolt in 132-135) is a consequence: “You cast the Lord down, you were cast down to earth. And you, you lie dead, while he went up to the heights of heaven” (Passover Sermon 99-100).

Not long after the year 200, Bishop Hippolytus of Rome reflected in the same vein:

Why was the temple made desolate? Was it on account of the ancient fabrication of the calf? Or was it on account of the ancient idolatry of the people? Was it for the blood of the prophets? By no means, for in all these transgressions, they always found pardon open to them. But it was because they killed the Son of their Benefactor, for He is coeternal with the Father (Against the Jews 7).

Origen, who taught in the early 200s, pointedly restated the theme:

I challenge anyone to prove my statement untrue if I say that the entire Jewish nation was destroyed less than one whole generation later on account of these sufferings which they inflicted on Jesus. For it was, I believe, forty-two years from the time when they crucified Jesus to the destruction of Jerusalem. . . . For they committed the most impious crime of all, when they conspired against the Savior of mankind, in the city where they performed the customary rites which were symbols of profound mysteries. Therefore, that city where Jesus suffered these indignities had to be utterly destroyed. The Jewish nation had to be overthrown, and God’s invitation to blessedness transferred to others, I mean to the Christians, to whom came the teaching about the simple and pure worship of God.

[Origen, Contra Celsum (trans, and ed. H. Chadwick; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), 198-99.]

Eusebius, a Christian author of the early 300s, made the same sort of claims in his Ecclesiastical History, which became an extremely influential document for subsequent generations of Christians; his history fixed many aspects of the Christian understanding of history until the modern period. Speaking of the fall of Jerusalem in 70, he asserts that Christians fled the city so that “the judgement of God might at last overtake them for all their crimes against the Christ and his Apostles, and all that generation of the wicked be utterly blotted out from among men” (Eccl hist 3.5.3, trans. K. Lake, LCL). Similar sentiments are found in such notable authorities as Minucius Felix, John Chrysostom, and Augustine, not to mention many lesser figures.

Obviously, Christian fascination with the destruction of the temple and the fate of the Jews was not a matter of merely antiquarian interest. As we have seen, Christians saw the “death” of the Jews as the necessary condition for the birth of Christianity. . . . 

. . . the church fathers spoke of the death or destruction of the Jews for symbolic reasons: to support their contention that God’s grace had passed from Judaism to the church. Far from being an incidental event in history, the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans provided a critical foundation for Christian self-understanding.

(Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, 11-12)

Mason further explains that Origen distorted Josephus by claiming that Josephus attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the death of James. In reality, Josephus found multiple reasons, multiple crimes by the Jews, for the destruction of Jerusalem:

In reality, Josephus’ writings are peppered with various reasons for the city’s fall; any conspicuous violation of the Mosaic law or Jewish custom is a candidate. He does express horror at the unlawful treatment of James (Ant. 20.200-201) but does not isolate this episode as a reason for the destruction. Rather, it is one of a number of infractions, including the bestowal of unprecedented privileges on the Levites (!), that he lists as causes of the later punishment. So Origen significantly misleads his readers in claiming that Josephus attributed the fall of Jerusalem to James’ mistreatment. (p. 14)

Indeed, Rivka Nir adds in the same footnote we are exploring here further details of the way Josephus attributed calamities on his people to divine punishment (I have rearranged the layout):

At the same time, Josephus also associates military defeats and national disasters with punishment for murders of individuals, especially in Jerusalem.

  • The classical biblical precedent of the murder of Zechariah son of Jehoiada the priest (2 Chron. 24.20-22), Josephus paraphrases (Ant. 9.166-72) as relating to Judea’s invasion by Hazael king of Aram and death of Joash;
  • the assassination of the high priest Yonatan by the Sicarii in the days of Felix, Josephus claims as responsible for the fate of Jerusalem and the temple (Ant. 20.160-66);
  • the murders of Hanan son of Hanan and Joshua of Gamla, Josephus claims, led God to forsake the Jews and deliver the temple to the Romans (War 4.314-25).

On the assassination of Zechariah son of Jehoiada and its metamorphoses in Josephus, the New Testament and rabbinic literature, see J. Klawans….. I. Kalimi…. D.R. Schwartz…..

(Nir, First Christian Believer, 45)

So off we go to visit, first, J. Klawans for how Josephus responded to the biblical story of the murder of Zechariah son of Jehoiada…

It appears that this brief biblical story had a profound effect on Josephus. Of course, he retells the story (Ant. 9.166-72), and he includes in his paraphrase each of the key elements we have identified: a brave prophet is killed by the people, in the temple, bringing about God’s wrath and a national catastrophe. But the powerful influence this kind of tale has on Josephus can be seen by subsequent examples in Antiquities, as well as (especially) Jewish War.

The Murder of Zechariah by William Brassey Hole (Wikimedia)

The very first postbiblical episode Josephus relates fits this pattern very closely, though not quite perfectly (Ant. 11.297-301). Immediately on concluding his paraphrase of the book of Esther, Josephus seeks to explain why the Persian king Artaxerxes II succeeded in defiling the sanctuary. Although there is no prophetic confrontation in this story, there is a murder in the sanctuary—a priestly fratricide, no less (298-99). This sacrilege provokes God, with the result that the people are defeated and the temple is defiled by the Persians (300). The pattern recurs with the murder of the rainmaker Onias (Ant. 14.22-28). Once again, a prophetic figure is murdered by his own people, this time for refusing to place a curse on Aristobulus and his forces (22-24). Sure enough, the people suffer mightily for the sin of killing a prophet (25-28). Somewhat similar is Josephus’s treatment of the murder of John the Baptist (18.116-19)—the execution of a virtuous figure is followed by the defeat of a Jewish army. The pattern clearly appears once again, and this time at a particularly key moment. In Antiquities 20.160-66. Josephus relates the conspiracy to kill the priest Jonathan, during the reign of Felix. Although Jonathan was no prophet, he is described as admonishing Felix to improve his administration: and “incessant rebukes are annoying to those who choose to do wrong” (162). So Felix arranges for Jonathan’s murder at the hands of the Sicarii (164). Although it is not explicit that the priest was killed at the temple, that may be implied since the killers’ cover was their intent to worship God. Regardless, Josephus is quick to point out that the Sicarii carried out other murders in the temple (165). And divine judgment is the result:

This is the reason why, in my opinion, even God himself, for loathing of their impiety, turned away from our city and, because he deemed the temple to be no longer a clean dwelling place for him, brought the Romans upon us and purification by fire upon the city, while he inflicted slavery upon us together with our wives and children: for he wished to chasten us by these calamities. (Ant. 20.166)

In Antiquities, the scriptural story of the sacrilegious murder of Zechariah serves as a model for explaining subsequent traumas, including, in Antiquities 20.166, the destruction of the second temple.

If this pattern peppers Antiquities, it plays an even more central role in Jewish War. The most elaborate examples appear about halfway through — at what Steve Mason identifies as the central, turning point of the narrative — when two former high priests, Ananus and Jesus, are depicted as bravely delivering speeches encouraging the people to turn against the Zealots and abandon their rebellion. Condemning the people for their internecine strife and for committing bloodshed in the temple (4.162-92, 238-69), both of these figures are, in turn, killed along with their followers: the temple is left defiled by blood, and the priests’ corpses are left unburied, to be devoured by beasts (4.312-16, 324). As Josephus’s encomium on their deaths makes clear, these figures were heroes whose sacrilegious murders swayed God to abandon the Jews and deliver the temple to the Romans (318-25). Yet the sinful bloodbath continues, with the Zealots next turning on the virtuous (and wealthy) Zechariah, son of Baris: he, too, is killed in the temple, after attesting to his innocence (334-44)·

To my knowledge, the fullest development of this scripturaily inspired pattern is to be found in the works of Josephus. But we can find examples and echoes elsewhere, including rabbinic sources. . . .

(Klawans, Josephus and the Theologies of Ancient Judaism, 127-128)

Isaac Kalimi likewise points out the “strong impact on numerous post-biblical, Jewish and Christian writings” of the story of the stoning of the prophet Zechariah, son of Jehoiada in 2 Chronicles 24:20-22. Kalimi even advances the possibility that the episode was created entirely from a re-weaving of other biblical passages and if so, is a work of theological imagination and is not historical.

2 Chronicles 24:20-22  Kalimi attributes the inspiration for the story itself to Lamentations 2:20; the other verses are drawn together to flesh out the dialogue of the story
And the spirit of God enveloped Zechariah, son of Jehoiada the priest, And the spirit of God enveloped Gideon — Judges 6:34
who stood above the people,

Compare this expression to a similar one in Nehemiah 8:4-5, “And Ezra the Scribe stood upon a platform of wood, which they had made for the purpose…; for he was above all the people….” (This is not cited as a source but as a parallel expression to explain the position of Z in 2 Chr)

and said to them: “Thus said God, “Thus said the Lord” Exodus 11:4; 32:27; 2 Samuel 7:5 // 1 Chronicles 17:3; Jeremiah 2:1; 4:3; 5:14 etc
‘Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord? So that you cannot prosper, because you have forsaken the Lord, He has also forsaken you.'”


“But Moses said, Why do you now transgress the commandment of the Lord? But it will not prosper. Do not go up, for the Lord is not in your midst; so that you should not be struck before your enemies… because you are turned away from the Lord, therefore the Lord will not be with you.” Numbers 14:41-43
And they conspired against him and stoned him with stones at the commandment of the king in the courtyard of the House of the Lord.

Thus Joash the king did not remember the kindness that Jehoiada his father had shown him but slew his son.

“. . . should priest and prophet be slain in the Temple of the Lord” Lamentations 2:20c

This is the verse that Kalimi suggests inspired the entire story of the slaying of the prophet who was the son of a priest. The context of the passage in Lamentations speaks of the Babylonians slaying the priests and prophets.

And when he died, he said, “May the Lord see and avenge!” “May the Lord look upon you and judge.” Exodus 5:21

“And surely your blood of your lives will I avenge.. . and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I avenge the life of man.” Genesis 9:5

But to return to the influence of this passage, Kalimi writes

Thus, the murder of the prophet and priest, Zechariah, in the House of the Lord, by a king who was saved from Athaliah’s sword in the same place by Zechariah’s father (2 Chr 22: 10-23:21 // 2 Kings 12) – regardless of the question of the historicity of the story in Chronicles – has been viewed through the generations as a disgraceful event, has penetrated deeply into the collective national memory, and has a strong impact on numerous post-biblical, Jewish and Christian writings. Indeed, the case is probably included in the allusion mentioned in the non-canonical writing, the book of Jubilees [see Jubilees 1:11]; it is definitely mentioned in the Pseudepigraphic Vitae Prophetarum / Lives of the Prophets 23:1-2 [online – scroll down to Zechariah son of Jehoiada]; in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 9.168-69; twice in the New Testament (Matt 23:35 // Luke 11:50-51); in the Ethiopian exegetical tradition [Studia Patristica 18, pp 293-302]; in various Talmudic, Midrashic, and Targumic sources; and is used as a theme Jewish medieval poetry [Retelling of Chronicles, ch 13, sections 3 & 4].

(Kalimi, Murder in Jerusalem Temple, 208)

Finally, we drop in on Daniel R. Schwartz. In discussing the John the Baptist passage found in Josephus’s Antiquities, specifically the question of his death being responsible for the defeat of Herod Antipas’s army, . . . (again, with my own layout)

Should we view these paragraphs as expressing Josephus’ own view of John the Baptist or, rather, as passing on to us that of some unnamed others, presumably followers of Jesus or, perhaps, survivors of John’s own movement?

In dealing with this question, let us first note that the passage deals with a favorite Josephan issue: divine providence governs the world, so military defeats are to be understood as expressing God’s will. In particular, however, note that Josephus likes to explain troubles of Jerusalem by reference to murders within it: Antipas’ murder of John was

  • like the murder of Onias in Antiquities 14.24–25, which explains Pompey’s success a few pages later,
  • and like the murder of the Roman garrison of Jerusalem in 66, which caused God to consign the city to destruction (see War 2.454–455 and 539) – something which elsewhere Josephus says about indiscriminate murders in the city (Ant. 20.166)
  • and, in particular, about the murder of two high priests (War 4.314–325).

That is, this passage conforms well to what Josephus likes to preach

(Schwartz, Reading the First Century, 107)

Conclusion: while Rivka Nir has a case for the Josephan John the Baptist passage being compatible with Christian theological views, by itself the case is hardly decisive in the question of authenticity given its equally compatible nature with Josephus’s own viewpoint.

In the next post we’ll look at what Nir makes of the positive tone surrounding John the Baptist in Antiquities 18.

Grant, Robert M. Eusebius as Church Historian. Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1980. http://archive.org/details/eusebiusaschurch0000gran.

Herrmann, Léon. Chrestos: Témoignages Païens Et Juifs Sur Le Christianisme Du Premier Siècle. Collection Latomus, v. 109. Bruxelles: Latomus, 1970.

Kalimi, Isaac. “Murder in Jerusalem Temple: The Chronicler’s Story of Zechariah: Literary and Theological Features, Historical Credibility and Impact.” Revue Biblique (1946-) 117, no. 2 (2010): 200–209. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44092024

Klawans, Jonathan. Josephus and the Theologies of Ancient Judaism. Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2012. http://archive.org/details/josephustheologi0000klaw.

Mason, Steve. Josephus and the New Testament. Hendrickson Publishers, 1992.

Nir, Rivka. First Christian Believer: In Search of John the Baptist. Sheffield Phoenix Press Ltd, 2019.

Schwartz, Daniel R. Reading the First Century: On Reading Josephus and Studying Jewish History of the First Century. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014.

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Neil Godfrey

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