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
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
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
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
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 .
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:
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.
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
... 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. 
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
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
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.
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
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.
 Josephus and the New Testament, Steve Mason,