Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
John the Baptist

That John the Baptist (literally "the baptiser") existed and was contemporary with Jesus is, in historical terms, as certain as it's possible to be.

Flavius Josephus, a Jewish author, writing in the first century, refers in some detail to John in his History of the Jews. The biblical evidence is equally strong. 

Josephus used early first-century sources, many of them probably eye-witnesses. He devotes much more space to John the Baptist than to Jesus, who gets only a few lines (and those have been tampered with by later Christian scribes and ecclesiastical authorities).

Herod (Antipas) had abandoned his wife, the daughter of a nearby ruler, Aretas IV. Aretas got upset about this and about a simmering previous border dispute. He sent in his army and Herod's forces were roundly defeated.

Josephus writes about the aftermath:

It seemed to some of the Jews that the destruction of Herod's army by God had been divine retribution - a just one because of his treatment of the man known as John the Baptist. Herod had put John to death, it will be remembered, even though he was a good person. He told the Jews to be virtuous and just to each other, to  give God the respect due to him, and to be baptised.

John thought that if God was to accept this baptism, people should take care to correct their behaviour before coming to be baptised. This right behaviour would consecrate the body and purify it. Baptism was not a means of gaining forgiveness of sins.

John's speeches tended to arouse people's emotions greatly, so Herod got scared when he saw the crowds which gathered around John. He supposed that when people got excited in this way, they might rise against his rule. So Herod decided to make a pre-emptive strike rather than wait until John's influence drove the crowds to rebellion. He wanted to act immediately rather than too late.

Acting from these suspicions, he had John fettered and sent to the fort of Machaerus (which I mentioned before). There John was killed. The Jews who reflected on this deed thought that the later destruction of Herod's troops [by Aretas] was the price Herod had to pay to God for what he did to John.

The fact that Josephus wrote in such detail about John the Baptist is one reason why his writings have been preserved by Christians for so long. The gospel accounts of John were used from the start to validate the importance of Jesus. So it was useful to have John's importance ratified by the long account in Josephus. The latter does not, however, confirm the teaching of John as rendered by the gospels. He says only that "He told the Jews to be virtuous and just to each other, to give God the respect due to him, and to be baptised". There is no reference to Jesus in this context.

The barren lands in which the gospels say John preached are the dry area in the wilderness of the Jordan River Valley. It isn't far from the fortress of Machaerus where, according to Josephus, John was first imprisoned and then executed by Herod Antipas.

In these times there were quite frequent appearances of men who proclaimed themselves to be specially tuned in to God.  So while John doesn�t seem to have claimed any special relationship in this respect for himself, it's quite possible that he did refer in some way to the coming Messiah as the gospels report. This would have been a common theme to many Jews at the time. But Josephus does not confirm this.

Because of the way people wrote such records in the first century, we don't know for sure the details of what happened when Jesus was baptised by John. But it is safe to strongly suspect that if it happened, it was a defining event in the former's life. 

In reading about John we should note that the Mark, Matthew and Luke are mainly concerned with the meaning of John in relation to Jesus. They quote Isaiah 40.3 to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah and that John was announcing his presence, as had been foretold. That is, they are not concerned with history in the way we know it, but with history as the fulfillment of what had been prophesied.

The Jews expected that Elijah would appear on earth (Malachi 4.5) before the coming of God's kingdom. So while it's possible that John did wear camel's hair and a leather belt, it's just as important to recognise that this is how Elijah is supposed to have dressed (2 Kings 1.8). The gospel authors are making a theological point in putting this detail in. That is, their description of John might not be history in the sense that we know from the gospels how John actually dressed as a matter of fact.

What we do know for sure is that the "Herod" who eventually executed John the Baptist was a son of Herod, so-called "the Great" because of his long reign and many public works. Antipas governed Galilee for 40 years after his father's death. He was given the title "Tetrarch" (literally "ruler of a quarter"). He later took to using his father's name more and more, probably to boost his public status.

Josephus mentions only that John was imprisoned because he had many followers. Herod Antipas thought that he intended to rebel.

Josephus' account of John's death presents us with some difficulties. The accounts in both Mark (6.14-29) and Matthew (14.1-12) differ in detail from Josephus.

  • Mark talks of Antipas merely as "King Herod", indicating that his knowledge of the period and place were limited. Josephus is much more knowledgeable about the history. 

  • Mark says that Herodias had been the wife of Antipas' brother Philip. Josephus correctly points out that she had been married to Herod the Great's son by one of his wives, Mariamne II.

  • Mark says that Antipas was, as it were trapped into killing John by his own rash oath - even though he knew him to be a righteous person. Josephus, more realistically, says that Antipas executed John out of plain political self-interest.

  • Mark tells how Herodias' daughter was brought in to dance for the party. The experts think this is highly unlikely. Slave dancers, not a high socialite, would have done any dancing [1].

Matthew's version avoids many of these problems simply by abbreviating the account quite drastically. Critics agree that Luke was quite well informed about the period. So it's not surprising that he leaves out the story of the part altogether. Similarly, both Matthew and Luke don't mention Philip at all.

John's Gospel portrays John the Baptist as a herald to Jesus and subordinate to him. The author takes trouble to point out that Jesus, not John, was the "light of the world" (1.6-9). This gospel is somewhat independent of the others:

  1. The author claims that John and Jesus worked side-by-side before John was arrested (3.22-23). This is not mentioned by the other gospels. Such close contact would have suited the themes of the author of John's Gospel.

  2. This gospel takes considerable pains to deny that Jesus could possibly have been in any way connected to the great Hebrew prophet Elijah (1.21). To admit this would have been to reduce the credibility in the eyes of second-century Christians of Jesus as the "Word made flesh".

All-in-all Josephus as a source is more reliable than the gospels, writes Steve Mason,

... because it is a tightly woven and intricate whole, based on excellent sources; the gospel of Mark, for its part, has no sustained interest in Antipas but mentions only this single episode. [1]

Another important reason for preferring Josephus as good history is that he had no theological axe to grind in writing about John, as do the gospel authors. From start to finish, the gospels appropriate John the Baptist into the Christian salvation myth, while Josephus leaves Jesus out altogether in this context. 

The conclusion that the gospel authors "wrote up" Jesus is more likely than that Josephus erased John's Christian connection for some unknown reason. Josephus mentions John only incidentally in the context of his much longer description of Herod Antipas' government. He would have had no reason to excise the connection with Jesus that the gospels promote.

That John was perceived by Josephus and his sources as unconnected to Jesus is convincingly supported by Luke's account in Acts 19.1-5 of how Paul stumbles upon a group of John's disciples in Ephesus. Remember that Luke and the other gospel authors took great pains to portray John as declaring the messianic role of Jesus. 

And yet here is a group of John's followers who apparently have neither knowledge of, nor connection with, Jesus in any way. The best conclusion is that John's teaching was in fact independent of Jesus, and that his followers remained apart from early Christian groups.

To sum up: John the Baptist remains an important element in the teaching of the Church. But he was originally appropriated by Christians to validate the importance of Jesus in the early Church. He was hijacked to give greater credibility in the early debates and controversies about the importance of Jesus. Links back to the past were important in Roman thought of the day.

Jesus, amongst many others, was probably baptised by John. This event seems to have been a watershed in the life of the former.

At the same time, we have to recognise that Josephus also had reasons for portraying Jesus as he did. 

  1. A John who led a simple life, was free from corruption and graft, and who was fearless in the face of political power would have appealed to the Roman readers who Josephus was writing for and wanted to impress (around the year 95).

  2. Josephus would have been keen to eliminate any suggestion of apocalyptic preaching by John. Though he wanted to stress that God was in charge of events, he wanted no suggestion that the Hebrew people - whose main city and Temple had recently been destroyed by a Roman army - were any lingering threat to Roman power.

[1] Josephus and the New Testament, Steve Mason, Hendrickson, 2003

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