Competing Accounts Of The Baptist’s Demise: Josephus Versus The Gospels -- By: Paul V. Harrison

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 24:2 (Spring 2007)
Article: Competing Accounts Of The Baptist’s Demise: Josephus Versus The Gospels
Author: Paul V. Harrison

Competing Accounts Of The Baptist’s Demise: Josephus Versus The Gospels

Paul V. Harrison

Pastor, Cross Timbers Free Will Baptist Church
Adjunct Professor of Church History
Free Will Baptist Bible College Nashville, Tennessee 37205

The literary works of Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, and those of the Gospel writers intersect broadly. This is not surprising since, as Louis Feldman put it, “Josephus is our most important extant source for the period from the end of the second century B.C.E. to the year 70, when the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans.”1 While biblical scholars continue to scrutinize the entire Josephan corpus, attention has especially focused on his treatment of Jesus, John the Baptist, and James the Just.2 The Testimonium Flavianum, Josephus’ puzzling paragraph on Jesus in the Antiquities, of course, has claimed the lion’s share of analysis.3 However, the material concerning the Baptist, the only other contemporary account of him extant, is also quite interesting and worthy of study, given his prominent role in the Gospels.

Josephus spent 162 words on his discussion of the Baptist, with most of these focused on his arrest, imprisonment, and death. In fact, it was only his death that led the Jewish historian to bring him up at all. While the Gospel accounts provide a much-fuller picture of John, they also offer a detailed look at his final days. This material is found in Matt. 14:1-12 and Mark 6:14-29. Luke provides a scant two-verse summary (3:19-20), and the fourth Gospel never touches on the subject.4 This paper attempts to compare the accounts of Josephus and of the Gospels, as they touch on John’s demise.

What The Accounts Say


In discussing the war that broke out between Antipas (20 B.C.-A.D. 39), tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, and Aretas, king of Nabatea, Josephus offered two reasons for the conflict: family tension and border disputes. The family trouble, he explained, erupted after Antipas, who had been married for a long time (χρόνον

ἠδη πολύν) to Aretas’ daughter, “lodged with his half-brother Herod, who was born of a different mother, namely, the daughter of Simon the high priest.” During this stay, Antipas fell in love with his brother’s ...

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