Where does John the Baptist fit in History? — The Evidence of Josephus, Pt 4

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by Neil Godfrey


(3) The Passage’s Reference to God’s Punishment of Herod

Peter Kirby asserts that contradictory viewpoints in Josephus are no reason to suspect the involvement of an alien hand somewhere in the transmission of our manuscripts. He quotes my (somewhat facile) paraphrase of Zindler’s point:

Neil Godfrey notes another one of the reasons that Zindler gives for suspecting an interpolation here:

In the John the Baptist paragraph the author writes that the reason Herod’s army was
defeated by Aretas was because God was punishing him for his unjust treatment of John.

But nope, that’s not the view of Josephus elsewhere. A few paragraphs later (18.7.2) Josephus writes:

And thus did God punish Herodias for her envy at her brother, and Herod also for giving ear to the vain discourses of a woman.

Kirby’s response is to suggest that Josephus could have thought both things at different times:

These are entirely different episodes, at different times, with different putative causes, and with different results. It is no difficulty to suppose that Josephus could have said both things. It is not as though Herod Antipas could be visited with God’s punishment only one time and for only one reason in the mind of Josephus. That is, the argument has no value even if we do conflate the opinion of “the Jews” with the personal opinion of Josephus in the Baptist passage. This argument might have some force, if the other passage were speaking of the cause being found for the destruction of Herod Antipas’ army as a punishment from God (instead of the cause being found for the banishment of Herod Antipas and his wife as a punishment from God).

That’s all very reasonable but it is also entirely ad hoc rationalisation. It may even be that Josephus, like most of us at some times, did hold contradictory or somewhat inconsistent views. Two things are worth keeping in mind, though.

The first one I should address is my “somewhat facile paraphrase” of Zindler’s argument. Kirby is not tackling Zindler but my summary as if it is the full account of Zindler’s view. Here is what Zindler wrote (and I hope I would today be more careful in how I express the ideas of others than I did in this instance in 2011):

A second … reason for concluding paragraph 2 is an interpolation is that in it Josephus cites – without indicating he believes otherwise – the supposed Jewish view that Herod came to a bad end because of his execution of the Baptist. Elsewhere [18:7:1; 18:255], however, Josephus gives his own – differing – view of why his god punished Herodias and Herod: “And so God visited this punishment on Herodias for her envy of her brother and on Herod for listening to a woman’s frivolous chatter” [Feldman translation]. 

(Zindler, The Jesus the Jews Never Knew, 98)

Making sense of the scenario as described

Scholarly views that the account of John the Baptist only makes sense if JtB were more than a preacher of ethics and was rather (or as a rationale for his ethics) preaching the coming of a messiah, a feature otherwise deplored by Josephus:

Meier, Marginal Jew Vol 2, p 61 “… in Josephus John is reduced to a popular moral philosopher in the Greco-Roman mode, with a slight hint of a neo-Pythagorean performing ritual lustrations. His message is summed up in those twin virtues seen in Philo and other Jewish Diaspora authors: justice toward one another and piety toward God. The whole point of a special, once-and-for-all baptism, to be administered to Jews only by John (hence his surname), becomes unintelligible. If the Synoptic portrait of the Baptist did not exist, something like it would have to be invented to supply the material that Josephus either suppresses or simply does not know. In a sense, Josephus’ portrait of the Baptist is self transcending; it points beyond itself to some further explanation Josephus does not offer.”

Thomas, Mouvement Baptiste, pp 78-83The call to the practice of virtue must be placed within the context of Jewish beliefs; it can only be understood in the line of the prophets: justice and piety must prepare for the coming kingdom. What the crowds must have sought and found in John’s speeches is above all the “good news” of the messianic times, what Saint Matthew calls the proximity of the kingdom of God. . . . However, John’s success, the enthusiasm of the crowd, and Herod’s fears speak volumes and prove that this messianic aspect was not absent from John’s speeches. Moreover, only messianic hope could enthuse the people at that time. . . . So, therefore, the preaching and baptism of John, even for Josephus, despite his denial, have a messianic significance; for him, as for the evangelists, John preaches and baptizes in view of repentance, which in turn is meant to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. This is what emerges from the text when properly understood; it also explains both the great success of John and Herod’s apprehensions, ultimately leading to the imprisonment and death of John. Only the announcement of the imminent messianic times could attract the masses and persuade them to embark on a widespread movement of “conversion” and repentance; only the fear of a messianic uprising could touch Herod and prompt him to take drastic measures against John.” (translation from the French)

Schürer, History of the Jewish People Vol 1, p. 346 “The powerful preacher undoubtedly caused a great stir which was indeed primarily religious but was certainly not without a political impact. For at that tune the mass of the people were unable to differentiate between their religious and political hopes.”

Whose opinion?

So what we read in Josephus is that “the Jews” or “some of the Jews” held a belief that God punished Herod because of his treatment of John the Baptist. It is later that Josephus writes point blank that God punished Herod listening to the bad advice of a woman.

The question then becomes a far more interesting one. Try to imagine how Josephus came to know that back around the time he (Josephus) was born, “the Jews” and/or “some of the Jews” were in some way declaring (speaking? writing? across generations?) that Herod had met his demise because of his treatment of John the Baptist. Surely the only Jews who would have held such a view were those who were followers of, or at least very sympathetic towards, John the Baptist. But have we not seen that Josephus has provided no credible reason that a large number of ordinary Jewish people would have gathered in large mobs that looked frightening enough to make Herod alarmed for his safety. The scenario we read lacks a plausible explanation.

No, all that we learn from Josephus is that John the Baptist gathered large crowds, so large that the king feared they might turn violently against him, because he was teaching high moral principles, righteousness.

I find that scenario difficult to imagine in reality. (For more background to the argument I am setting out here see below.) I find it far easier to side with those scholars [see side box for some examples] who suggest that the only plausible explanation for the popularity of John the Baptist is that he had been stirring up hopes for a soon-coming messiah. With all that we think we know about Josephus, how could he ever have brought himself to speak any praises at all about such a figure.

And what kind of tradition was supposedly being circulated in Judea a generation or two later so that Josephus learned about these Jews who had enough critical mass for their ideas — that a preacher who won mass followers for preaching ethics and baptizing followers Qumran-style — to be recorded? Recall what we read in Antiquities:

But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, called the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead righteous lives and practice justice towards their fellows and piety toward God to join in baptism. . . .

. . . . When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons. Herod became alarmed. 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 that they did.

What sorts of things were they doing under the sway of John’s eloquent persuasion that so alarmed Herod of John’s power? This account is all very vague but what it lacks in realistic historical detail it makes up for with richness of ideological traits that match what we read in the New Testament.

Is it likely that Jews or “some Jews” in the time of Josephus were reminding everyone that God punished Herod because he killed a man who attracted a popular following for preaching righteousness. I find the scenario hard to grasp for two reasons: that preaching high ethics attracts such a large following from the hoi polloi so that a king feels threatened; that more than a generation later such an unrealistic episode was still being talked about, such was its impact, that the only record of such a “unrealistically(?)” remarkable person and event found went otherwise unrecorded – not even noticed in later rabbinic writings who loved to speak of notables from the Second Temple era.

Am I being unrealistic? Hyper-sceptical? Misreading Josephus? (Serious questions)

Cui Bono?

In my defence against anyone who thinks so, I would like to point to another discussion of different viewpoints found in an ancient historical source. In Herodotus’s Histories one finds two different reasons given to explain the escape of Croesus from a fiery death, although in this case the two different reasons are artfully combined in a single episode. One of the reasons is attributed to “the Lydians”, reminding us that one of the reasons in Josephus for Herod’s demise is attributed to “the Jews”. (The other reason, in both Herodotus and Josephus, is stated as if it were the author’s own opinion.) One scholar attempts to trace the origin of the Lydian view and does so through the following manner:

An important heuristic device seems to me to be a question that is often used fruitfully in criminology in the absence of clear evidence: Cui bono? Who benefited from using a specific source to support a specific statement in a specific context? (Heinz-Günther Nesselrath p. 87, translation)

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