What Did Josephus Think of John the Baptist?

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by Neil Godfrey

Many scholars assert that behind the obviously interpolated words about Jesus in the Antiquities of the Jews Josephus did in fact write something, either mildly positive or neutral in tone, about him. The problem with that assertion is that it is well recognized among scholars of Josephus that the Jewish historian absolutely hated everyone who, they believe, was taken to be some sort of messianic figure. Accordingly, some scholars propose that what Josephus originally wrote about Jesus was indeed a negative assessment. Hence the ongoing slide into imaginary sources so familiar to historical Jesus studies. What we read in the writings of Josephus about Jesus is beyond the scope of Rivka Nir’s exploration of John the Baptist in The First Christian Believer. But what I found interesting was that one of her reasons for questioning the authenticity of the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities falls into the same basket of reasons for questioning the authenticity of the Jesus passage.

Palestine was riddled with prophets in the decades leading up to the War of 66-70 and John the Baptist (and Jesus, too) should be examined in this context, we so often read in the scholarly literature. The usual suspects trotted out are

  • the Samaritan prophet who led crowds to Mount Gerazim in expectation of finding sacred vessels hidden by Moses
  • Theudas who led a large crowd to the Jordan River in expectation of it parting just as in the days of Joshua
  • the Egyptian prophet who led a crowd to the Mount Olives from where they expected to see God tear down the walls of Jerusalem
  • the prophet from the wilderness who took people out into the wilderness

The attitude of Josephus to all of these prophets is well known. He branded them “false prophets, imposters, deceivers, swindlers, deluders” (Nir, 46) and he blamed them, along with “bandits and robbers” and other rebels for the destruction of the temple at the hands of Rome.

How can we reconcile?

So how can we understand writing about John the Baptist so positively? Nir writes:

44 The word στάσις means rebellion or struggle against the governing authorities, or conflict between two civilian groups: see Ant. 18.62.88 . . . ; and νεώτερος conveys the idea of social-political change or revolution: ‘With this significance the term is often used negatively by those supporting the status quo which is being challenged by that which is ‘‘radically innovative”’ (Webb, John the Baptizer and Prophet, p. 37 . . .). 

His abhorrence of these prophets is consistent with his opposition to whoever sought to undermine the legitimate government and strove after any kind of change or revolution. In the passage at hand, John is described as contesting the legitimate regime and instigator of revolution: Herod feared that ‘eloquence [John’s] that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition [στάσις]’ and ‘decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising (νεώτερος), than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation, and see his mistake’. The two terms (στάσις and νεώτερος) imply that John’s activity had rebellious overtones and the potential for political ferment.44

How then can we reconcile Josephus’s negative stance toward these rabble-rousers with his sympathy for John? And not only does Josephus describe him positively, he even justifies those Jews who saw the annihilation of Herod’s army as divine punishment for John’s execution: ‘But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance (μάλα δικαίως).

(Nir, 46f)

Nir notes that some scholars (Schürer, Meier) raise the possibility that Josephus might have made an exception for John the Baptist because of his asceticism. My response to that suspicion is to ask why Josephus did not breathe a word about John’s asceticism. The asceticism of John is an idea that comes from the gospels where it serves an evident theological function as a foil to the teaching of Jesus. If Josephus thought of John as qualitatively different from the other prophets whom he despised then surely we would expect him to make that difference explicit.

At this point Rivka Nir takes up what she considers the primary reason for doubting the authenticity of the Josephan passage: the description of John’s baptism. We’ll look at that in a later post.

Differences between John the Baptist and those other prophets

Meanwhile, let’s look more closely at the background of other prophets discussed by Josephus. John Meier sees significant differences. The most obvious one is that the Romans violently attacked the other prophetic gatherings, even those that posed no violent revolutionary threat. Why would John the Baptist and his followers be allowed to gather any sort of momentum at all if they stood opposed to the governing authorities? Meier breaks down the points of difference:

Nothing in our texts [i.e. gospels and Josephus] indicates that John intended to found a sect or lead a mass movement in a decisive eschatological event of deliverance. In preaching the baptism of repentance he was attempting to prepare the people, apparently even across class and sectarian lines, for the impending judgment. – Horsley, 178 (cited by Meier, 98)

(1) Most of those baptized by John soon returned to their homes, presumably scattered throughout Palestine. There is no indication that those previously baptized by John ever returned at one time and as one group either to live with the Baptist or to follow him on some march. Hence there never was at any one time the kind of huge massing of people around the Baptist that there was around, e.g., the Egyptian.

(2) The “leadership popular prophets” not only gathered a large number of followers around themselves at one time; they also proceeded to lead them on a march to some venerable spot of Israelite history in what could only appear to the ruling authorities as an intentionally provocative act (e.g., the Egyptian led his large group to the Mount of Olives, facing Jerusalem).

(3) In the case of the “leadership popular prophets,” the authorities deemed it necessary to kill or capture many of the prophets’ followers. They, as well as their leaders, were seen to be a real and present danger. As far as we know, nothing similar happened even to those disciples of John who lived in his entourage, to say nothing of the larger group of followers baptized by him.

[These points] argue strongly that the Baptist’s “movement” was significantly and perhaps essentially different . . . 

(Meier, 99)

These points are worth keeping in mind for any discussion of the historical place of John the Baptist. If John the Baptist appears to be “without compare” then critical questions are surely justified. (These points additionally have relevance to the question of the origin of the Mandaeans.) In a similar vein, and one relating to the Josephan passage about Jesus, another comment by Meier is of interest:

It is curious that Josephus, while so detailed in his explanation of why John was executed, is totally silent on the precise reason why the Jewish leaders accused Jesus before Pilate and why Pilate decided to crucify him. (Meier, 99)

There is indeed much to be curious about.

Let’s also keep in mind that there are three alternatives: authentic, interpolation, or misplaced.

Horsley, Richard A., and John S. Hanson. Bandits Prophets and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus. San Francisco: Winston Pr, 1988.

John P. Meier. A Marginal Jew. Volume 2, Mentor, Message and Miracles, 1994. http://archive.org/details/johnp.meieramarginaljewv.2anchorbiblereferencelibrary

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

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “What Did Josephus Think of John the Baptist?”

    1. I generally read encyclopedia articles, even those from the Encyclopaedia Judaica, with caution and tentativeness until I can establish and check the sources on which their information is based and learn a little more about the scholarly discussion about those sources and how they are interpreted. The claims of article in the Jewish Virtual Library on John the Baptist are essentially speculative.

      As for Mandaeans and when their John the Baptist myth entered their literature, I have begun posting on some studies here: https://vridar.org/tag/mandaeans/

      “John the Baptist” is, in my view at the moment, an entirely mythical figure. There was no such person in history.

      1. “The claims of article in the Jewish Virtual Library on John the Baptist are essentially speculative.”

        I know that. My emphasis was on the existence of a variety of fringe sects like those Hemerobaptists. At one time there was a sort of spectrum of these groups.

        Seems to me there was a linguistic study some European did not so long ago to determine the latest time at which those Mandaeans could have left the Jordan valley in southern Mesopotamia.

        Those interested in the Manicheans also delve into this stuff as Mani was raised in one of these baptizing sects. I know Gerard Luttikhuizen in the Netherlands has long been going down some of these rabbit holes.

        Alternately an ex-Muslim pseudonymous correspondent of mine online has opined on whether the ‘wudu’ washing ritual stuff many do before prayers is a survival from one of those groups upon being folded into the hodge podge mix of stuff that coalesced into Islam.

        Those Hypsistarians referenced in that encyclopedia article above the Hemerobaptists who focused on the most high god El Elyon. That is more or less what Ali is if you drill down into it.

        Al-‘Ali (The High) Al-A’la (The Most High) and how does it correlate with Hypsistarians the monotheistic worshippers of the Hypsistos, i.e. of the “Most High” God?

        “To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and the earth, and He is al-’Ali (the High), al-Adhim (the Exalted)” (Surah ash-Shura:4)

        “Glorify the name of your Lord, al-A’la (the Most High)” (Surah al-A’la:1)

        Could it be? https://themaydan.com/2017/07/hanifs-theosebes-god-fearers-common-link-judaism-christianity-islam-historical-quranic-context/

        http://www.ricerchefilosofiche.it/files/God-Fearers.pdf [You’re a librarian and obviously good at editing and writing. Maybe you could re-format this… hard to read as is with more than half of it being copious footnotes and all of those are piled up in the rear instead of at the bottom of the pages where they should be]

        I’d like to see Ohlig and company at Inarah delve into this some. Ali could turn out to be more of an syncretized epithet recycled from an earlier layer of religious substrata just like Muhammad and it’s Latin cognate Benedictus which both mean more or less “the praised one” or “the one to be praised”.

        1. The roots of the Mandaic language go back to the early Parthian period (not Sasanian: Rosenthal, 1938, pp. 238-54). Its users and speakers, the Mandaeans, recruit from a former Babylonian Aramaean population. Leaving aside the constant debate on the origin of their religious doctrine and their background (see above sections), there exist no Western Aramaic linguistic traces in the Mandaic idiom which could be convincingly proven.

          Had in mind something like the above lines from: https://iranicaonline.org/articles/mandaeans-5-language

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