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John the Baptist vs. John the Baptist

03 Aug

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.

Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him.

-Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.2

Here Josephus says that John the Baptist was insanely popular and didn’t baptize for the remission of sin. Herod subsequently arrests and kills John because he’s too popular and thought he might start a rebellion.

Mark 1

4And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 6

17For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.

Here Mark says that John the Baptist was insanely popular and did baptize for the remission of sins. Mark also says that he arrested John because he spoke ill of him, not because he was popular.

Josephus’ John the Baptist has a fate that seems closer to the Jesus of Christianity: popular and executed due to his popularity and fears of starting a rebellion. But why would Josephus write that about John the Baptist, yet write so little about Jesus, who was also supposed to share a similar fate? Are Josephus’ mentions of the Jesus of Christianity wholly interpolations?

I don’t have access to the Greek versions of “Jewish War” and “Antiquities”, but in the English versions the only two times that Josephus writes the title “Christ” are both in reference to the Jesus of Christianity – even though Josephus argued that the Roman General Vespasian was the Christ (but still avoiding that word)

Now if any one consider these things, he will find that God takes care of mankind, and by all ways possible foreshows to our race what is for their preservation; but that men perish by those miseries which they madly and voluntarily bring upon themselves; for the Jews, by demolishing the tower of Antonia, had made their temple four-square, while at the same time they had it written in their sacred oracles, “That then should their city be taken, as well as their holy house, when once their temple should become four-square.”

But now, what did the most elevate them in undertaking this war, was an ambiguous oracle that was also found in their sacred writings, how,” about that time, one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth.” The Jews took this prediction to belong to themselves in particular, and many of the wise men were thereby deceived in their determination. Now this oracle certainly denoted the government of Vespasian, who was appointed emperor in Judea. However, it is not possible for men to avoid fate, although they see it beforehand. But these men interpreted some of these signals according to their own pleasure, and some of them they utterly despised, until their madness was demonstrated, both by the taking of their city and their own destruction.

– Josephus, Jewish War 6.5.4

It seems… inconsistent for Josephus to argue that Vespasian was the Christ yet avoid that word and then in another book simply assert that Jesus is the “Christ” without even explaining what that word means or arguing for why he’s calling him “Christ” (remember, Josephus is writing these two books for the Romans).

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