|New Testament Parallels
to the Works of Josephus
John the Baptist:
Luke 3.3, 3.19; Mark 6.17-29;
John the Baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of
repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean
countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and
were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now
John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his
waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is
more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down
and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
Luke 3.3-3:18 (Matthew 3.1-12)
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor
Tiberius...the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the
wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a
baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in
the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, "The voice of one crying
out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You
brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear
fruits worthy of repentance...."
And the crowds asked him, "What then shall we do?" In reply he said,
"Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever
has food must do likewise."
Herod, Herodias, Salome and the Head of John the Baptist:
But Herod the Tetrarch, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias,
his brother's wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had
done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Luke 9.7-8 (Mark 6.14-16)
Now Herod the Tetrarch heard about all that had taken place, and he was
perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from
the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of
the ancient prophets had arisen. Herod said, "John I beheaded; but who
is this about whom I hear such things?" And he tried to see him.
Mark 6.17-29 (Matthew 14.1-12)
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him
in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because
Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not
lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge
against him, and wanted to kill him.
When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to
listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a
banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.
When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she
pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for
whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her,
"Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." She
went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied,
"The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king
and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the
Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard
for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.
Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring
John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on
a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.
When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid
it in a tomb.
Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came
from God, and was a very just punishment for what he did against John
called the Baptist [the "dipper"]. For Herod had him killed, although he
was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both
as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God, and having
done so join together in washing. For immersion in water, it was clear to
him, could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a
sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly
purified by right actions. And when others massed about him, for they were
very greatly moved by his words, Herod, who feared that such strong
influence over the people might carry to a revolt -- for they seemed ready
to do any thing he should advise -- believed it much better to move now
than later have it raise a rebellion and engage him in actions he would
And so John, out of Herod's suspiciousness, was sent in chains to
Machaerus, the fort previously mentioned, and there put to death; but it
was the opinion of the Jews that out of retribution for John God willed
the destruction of the army so as to afflict Herod.
Herodias and Salome:
Antiquities 18.5.3 136
Herodias was married to Herod, the son of Herod the Great by
Mariamne the daughter of Simon the high priest. They had a daughter
Salome, after whose birth Herodias, taking it into her head to flout the
way of our fathers, married Herod the Tetrarch, her husband's brother by
the same father, who was tetrarch of Galilee. To do this she parted from
a living husband.
Herod and Herodias and Herod's First Wife and Aretas:
Antiquities 18.5.1 109-115
(This paragraph immediately precedes the one about John.)
About this time Aretas, the king of Petra, and Herod the
Tetrarch had a quarrel on account of the following: Herod the tetrarch
had married the daughter of Aretas and had lived with her a great while;
but once when he was on his way to Rome he lodged with his
half-brother, also named Herod but who had a different mother, the
high priest Simon's daughter. There he fell in love with Herodias,
this latter Herod's wife, who was the daughter of their brother
Aristobulus and the sister of Agrippa the Great.
This man ventured to talk to her about a marriage between them; she
accepted, and an agreement was made for her to come to him as soon as he
should return from Rome, one condition of this marriage being that he
should divorce Aretas's daughter. So when he had made this agreement, he
sailed to Rome; but when he had finished there and returned again, his
wife, having discovered the agreement he had made with Herodias, and
before he knew that she knew of the plan, asked him to send her to
Machaerus, a place on the border between the territories of Aretas and
Herod, without informing him of any of her intentions.
Accordingly Herod sent her there, thinking his wife had not perceived
anything. But she had sent messages a good while before to Machaerus,
which had been under the control of her father, and so all things
necessary for her escape were made ready for her by the general of
Aretas's army. By that means she soon came into Arabia, under the
conduct of the several generals, who carried her from one to another
successively; and soon she came to her father and told him of Herod's
Aretas made this the start of his enmity toward Herod. He also had a
quarrel with him about their boundaries in the area of Gabalis. So they
raised armies on both sides and prepared for war, sending their generals
to fight instead of themselves. And when they had joined battle, all
Herod's army was destroyed by the treachery of some fugitives who,
though they were of the tetrarchy of Philip and joined the army,
betrayed him. So Herod wrote about these affairs to Emperor
Tiberius, who was very angry at the attempt made by Aretas and wrote to
Vitellius to make war upon him and either to take him alive, and bring
him in chains, or to kill him, and send him his head. This was the
command that Tiberius gave to the governor of Syria.
Josephus in the Desert (Life 2):
When I was about sixteen years old I had a mind to make a trial of the
several sects that were among us. There are three of these, that of the
Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the third that of the Essenes, as we have
frequently told you. I thought that being acquainted with them all I
could choose the best.
So I consigned myself to hardship, and underwent great difficulties,
and went through them all. Nor did I content myself with the trying of
these three only, for when I was informed that one whose name was Banus
lived in the desert, and used no other clothing than what grew upon
trees, and had no other food than what grew of its own accord, and
bathed himself in cold water frequently, both night and day, to purify
himself, I imitated him in those things, and continued with him three
The Popularity of John the Baptist Both the New Testament and
Josephus depict John the Baptist has having a more powerful influence on
the majority of the people of the time than did Jesus. Josephus'
description of John is more detailed than his account of Jesus, and
John's death is, in the people's view, avenged afterward by Heaven with
real actions, but Josephus mentions no such divine support for
In contrast with his usual
attitude toward popular leaders, Josephus is sympathetic towards John
the Baptist. One wonders what the difference is between John and the men
whom Josephus disparages as "deceivers" (apate�nes) and
"enchanters" (go�tes), such as Thuedas and the Egyptian. It isn't
simply that John did not represent a direct threat to Rome - Josephus
always stresses the folly of those who do oppose Rome - as many of the
others also seemed apolitical. All of these, including John, seemed to
be killed solely because they had a large following, which in itself was
seen as a threat to those in power. There was room for only one crowd
and only one leader. We are left to conclude that Josephus himself was
touched favorably by the philosophy of John, just as many of his
countrymen were. While he was probably working from a source that was
itself positive toward John, his choice of that source would have
reflected his own attitude.
A Baptism of Repentance Josephus seems genuinely intrigued by
the notion of baptism and tries to explain it in terms his audience can
understand. (The word derives from the Greek bapt�, "dip".) He
understands it first as a purification of the body, playing the same
role as the traditional mikvah. The spiritual question involved
is whether John has the power to forgive sins, perhaps with the aid of
water that has mystical properties. Josephus strongly denies that John
claimed any such power: the washing was a physical manifestation of a
spiritual commitment to performing good works.
In the New Testament John gives a "baptism of
repentance," and insists angrily to those who come to him that they must
"bear fruits worthy of repentance," an attitude which accords with
Josephus' description. But he is also seen as providing "forgiveness of
sins" after the repentance has been made, and the religious authorities,
particularly in the Book of John, are suspicious that he is taking upon
himself a divine role. His follower Jesus is more directly accused of
this in the other Gospels.
Josephus does not hint that John was announcing
the imminent coming of the Messiah, as the New Testament does. But
throughout his works Josephus deliberately hides references to the
Messiah (for example, in his account of Moses he leaves out Deuteronomy
18) - except to describe the notion as a primary cause of the war with
Rome, which was evidently well known to his non-Jewish audience (the
Roman historian Tacitus also mentions it), which is reason enough for
him to not want to provoke his audience by presenting the idea
positively. Yet it is difficult to understand the excitement of the
people in response to John simply based on the description of his
philosophy as given by Josephus.
Essenes Modern scholars see a similarity between John and the
sect that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, who are usually taken to be the
Essenes described by Josephus. John may have once been an Essene who
developed a following of his own.
This may explain Josephus' favorable view of
John, for the Essenes are described in very much greater detail than the
other two major Jewish philosophies. Moreover, in his autobiography,
Josephus tells us that when he was a teenager he spent three years in
the desert with a man named Banus who resembles John in behavior
(as in Mark's description). This Banus clothed himself using only trees,
ate only food that was found in the wild, and bathed himself in cold
water several times a day. Yet this Banus was not an Essene, but a
unique individual. This experience seems to have given Josephus a
lasting sympathy for people who led this way of life, which is quite
probably why he speaks so favorably of John the Baptist.
Herod's Marriage to Herodias The gospel of Mark states that John
criticized the marriage of Herod the Tetrarch to Herodias, and it was
this criticism that led to John's arrest and execution by Herod.
Josephus does not say that the marriage had anything to do with
Herod's action. But there is an implied connection between the two -
this is found in Josephus' account of the destruction of Herod's army.
Herod the Tetrarch did illegally marry
Herodias, Josephus tells us. Herodias was a grandchild of Herod the
Great and Mariamne the Hasmonean, through Mariamne's son Aristobulus.
Her grandfather had arranged her marriage while she was still a child to
her cousin, his son Herod, the one whose mother was daughter of the
priest Simon. (It much less confusing for us if everyone weren't named
Herod.) This arranged marriage apparently wasn't satisfactory, as
she left her "living husband" to marry her husband's step-brother, Herod
Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee.
Whether she simply left her first husband
unofficially, thus committing polyandry, or whether she "divorced" him
on her own initiative, the action was contrary to Jewish law, as a
woman was, and still is not in Orthodox Judaism, allowed to divorce her
husband without his written consent - i.e. he must divorce her.
The story does not end there. Josephus tells us
that this marriage of Herod the Tetrarch and Herodias led directly to
war with the neighboring Arab king, King Aretas; for Herod had been
married to Aretas' daughter. Whatever circumspection he had planned to
gently divorce her without angering Aretas was thwarted when his wife
got wind of his plans and prematurely fled to her father. This, coupled
with a dispute over borders, led to the battle that destroyed Herod's
It was this battle that the Jews of Galilee
associated with Herod's treatment of John the Baptist, says Josephus.
Why would they make such a connection? There are two possibilities. One
is a simple chronological proximity: if the army's defeat occurred
immediately after Herod's execution of John, the people would have made
a direct link between the two events. But the other possibility is
conceptual: if John had been killed by Herod some time earlier because
he criticized Herod's marriage to Herodias, then seeing the army
destroyed as the direct result of this marriage must have looked like a
just punishment indeed.
So even if Josephus does not say so, it is a
plausible conjecture, even if we did not have the New Testament sources,
that John had indeed criticized Herod's marriage and was executed for
it. (Incidentally, this King Aretas is the same one mentioned by Paul in
2 Corinthians 11:32.)
widely-known story is that of Salome, Herod's daughter who danced so
well that he promised to give her anything she asked for, whereupon she
asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
However, in the New Testament Herod's daughter is not named. Then why is
it that everyone who's heard the story knows the name Salome?
We know it not from the New Testament, but from Josephus, in the passage
cited above. Salome was the daughter of Herodias by her first marriage
to Herod the son of the daughter of Simon the high priest. Mark actually
identifies Herodias' first husband as another of Herod the Tetrarch's
brothers, Philip. Modern scholars assume this is a mistake, and a
natural one, as Philip was, of course, also named Herod. Still, the
error indicates that this part of Mark was not written by contemporaries
of John, who would certainly have known who married whom.
The Dating of John According to Josephus
A puzzle for readers is that Josephus' description of John the Baptist
occurs several paragraphs after his description of Jesus (18.5.2 116
compared to 18.3.3 63), implying that John came later in time; but it is
important in the gospels that John appeared before Jesus so as to
announce him. When, exactly, does Josephus state that John arose?
He is not at all clear, as is often the case
for events that occurred before his time. Even when Josephus is precise
about dates he can frequently shown to be somewhat off (as when he gives
the length of the reigns of Roman emperors). So any conclusions about
John from this passage must be taken cum grano salis.
Having said that, it does appear that Josephus
is giving John's death as occurring in 36, which is at least 6 years
later than what is expected from the New Testament, and after the
crucifixion of Jesus. This date is seen as follows. Herod's battle with
Aretas appears to have broken out soon after Herod's first wife,
Aretas's daughter, left him. If so, then John did not have much time
between the moment people were aware Herod was remarrying and the start
of the battle with Aretas, for John was already dead before the battle.
Josephus gives several indications that the battle occurred in 36:
The only question, then, is whether Josephus is
misleading when he implies that the battle with Aretas came immediately
after Herod separated from Aretas' daughter.
He states that the quarrel with Aretas
sprang up "about the time" (Ant. 18.5.1. 109) that Herod's brother
Philip died in 34 CE (Ant. 18.4.6 106).
During this time Herod's brother Agrippa
had gone to Rome "a year before the death of Tiberius" (Ant18.5.3
126), which places Agrippa's departure in 36 CE.
Soon after the battle, the Syrian commander
Vitellius was ordered by Tiberius to attack Aretas, whereupon
Vitellius marched through Judea with his army, pausing in Jerusalem
to placate the Jews and to sacrifice at a festival (probably
Passover). On the fourth day of his stay in Jerusalem he learned of
the death of Tiberius, which had occurred on March 16 37 CE (and it
could have taken up to a month for Jerusalem to get the news). This
puts the battle in the winter of 36/37 CE.
Vitellius' action against Aretas must have
occurred between his action against the Parthians, under Tiberius'
orders, and the death of Tiberius. The Parthian war occurred in 35
and 36 CE, as indicated both by Josephus and by the Roman historians
Tacitus and Suetonius. (Herod the Tetrarch assisted Vitellius in
negotiations between Tiberius and the Parthian king.)
So when did Herod marry Herodias? The only hint
Josephus gives is that the pair first met when Herod was on his way to
Rome, but unfortunately the only such journey we know about was when
Herod visited Augustus to receive his inheritance in 6 CE. This is not
very helpful. So the evidence of Josephus is that John the Baptist was
executed in 36 CE, well after the time indicated by the gospels - but,
it should be noted, still within the governorship of Pontius Pilate.
The Argument of Saulnier However,
the scholar Christiane Saulnier published a paper in 1984 arguing
that the marriage can be placed in 24 to 28 using evidence from
Josephus, an argument that Murphy-O'Connor, who is quite careful about
dates, accepts in his book Paul: A Critical Life. So let us
examine Saulnier's paper (C. Saulnier, Herode Antipas et Jean le
Baptiste: Quelques remarqes sur les confusions chronlogiques do Flavius
Josephus, Revue Biblique 91:362-376 (1984)).
To establish the earliest date we can know they
were married, Saulnier points out the passage at Antiquities 18.6.2 148
which refers to "Herodias, the wife of Herod the Tetrarch." The task is
to date this passage. We know it could not be describing a time prior to
23, and Saulnier votes for a time close to that date.
The date is derived from the travails of
Agrippa the First, the brother of Herodias. According to Antiquities
18.6.1-4, Agrippa had been living in Rome since before the death of his
father Herod the Great (4 BCE),
and had become well acquainted with the family of the Emperor Tiberius.
But when Agrippa's mother Berenice died he lost her sensible control
over his free-spending nature and also her connections with the imperial
family. In consequence he quickly ended up in debt. Agrippa had also
lost his friend Drusus, Tiberius' only son, who had been poisoned in 23,
and Tiberius, out of his grief, cut off contact with his son's old
companions. Agrippa quickly spent his money trying to keep close to the
emperor and soon found himself in debt with no one to help him.
As a result, he left Rome to seek help with his
family in Judea. But he grew suicidal, and only through the intervention
of his wife Cypros and his sister Herodias was he persuaded to live on..
It is here that the reference to Herodias as wife of Herod the Tetrarch
appears; the latter gives Agrippa an allowance for living expenses and a
profitable job as a local director of commerce.
Agrippa was resourceful, and eventually became
solvent again. When he did, he sailed back to Rome, in 36, and once
again made the acquaintance of Tiberius.
So the remark about Herodias can be
placed between 23 and 36. But where in this range? Saulnier attributes
Agrippa's departure from Rome as due to the death of Drusus. But it is
the death of his mother Berenice that caused Agrippa his money problems,
and we do not have a date for her demise. The death of Drusus
could have occurred years before, and Josephus might be mentioning it at
this point only because it is logical, not chronological. We
simply don't know the time between Drusus' death and Agrippa's departure
Saulnier offers a number of speculations about
Herod's unexplained trip to Rome, the source of his enmity with Agrippa,
etc. These do not, however, provide any new evidence that can be used
for a chronology.
What we do know (Antiquities 18.6.2 150)
is that "no great while" after Herod the Tetrarch gave Agrippa an
allowance and a job, Agrippa attempted to alleviate his money woes by
dealing with the Roman governor Flaccus; and that Flaccus was in power
from 32 to 35. This again supports the idea that it was the early 30s
(31-35) when Agrippa came to Judea in debt, and so there is no evidence
Herodias' marriage took place much earlier.
The event that limits the latest possible
marriage date, the battle between Aretas and Herod, is then addressed by
Saulnier. Josephus implied this battle occurred fairly soon after
Herod's separation from Aretas' daughter. In- between these two events,
John was executed (assuming he did criticize the new marriage as the
gospels relate). Thus, Saulnier asks whether the date of this battle
might have been well before the year 36 in which Josephus places it.
If we put aside more speculations, the concrete
proposal Saulnier makes is that Josephus has confused the occasion of
Vitellius' presence in Jerusalem for the Passover of 37, when the news
of Tiberius' death was received. Josephus states Vitellius was marching
to attack Aretas on Tiberius orders following the battle with Herod; but
Saulnier asks why Vitellius, stationed in Damascus, would march through
Jerusalem to attack an Arab leader headquartered in Petra (Jordan)?
Perhaps this is explained by the exact point of attack, which is
unknown, but probabilities dictate that this point has some
weight. Instead, suggests Saulnier, Vitellius was in Jerusalem to keep
control of matters after his removal of Pilate , which evidently
occurred in February or early March of that same year 37 (because
Tiberius had died by the time Pilate arrived in Rome).
To support this, Saulnier points out that
Josephus records two visits by Vitellius to Jerusalem during a Passover,
once when Pilate was removed (Antiquities 18.4.3 90) and once
when he was marching against Aretas. But these would have been the same
Passover: both events are dated by Tiberius' death in 37. He
suggests Josephus separated a single event into two and was incorrect
about the timing of Vitellius' attack against Aretas, which occurred, by
this reasoning, prior to the Parthian war. The confusion is made
plausible by Josephus' lack of good sources for the period and his
general laxness with identifying the proper synchronicity and order of
Against this idea of the mistaken Passover
there are the following points:
Conclusions about Saulnier's Discussion
Considering the arguments as a whole, Saulnier does
propose a possible way in which Josephus' chronology can be reconciled
with the gospels'. For believers in the basic accuracy of the gospels,
that is enough. But if one regards the gospels' dating as suspect and
solely works from Josephus' text, then Saulnier's discussion pushes the
date back some but does not produce any firm evidence identifying the date
of Herodias' marriage as occurring before the early 30s. The reader can
choose between these alternatives according to his or her own
Josephus says that Vitellius "sent
Marcellus to take charge of affairs in Judea" when Pilate was
removed, not that Vitellius went himself. We will have to
suppose that this statement is inaccurate, too.
A different report of Vitellius visiting
Jerusalem (Antiquities 15.11.4 405) seems to have been
confused with the visit at Pilate's removal, as both involve the
possession of the high priest's garments. So although there is an
obvious confusion in the text, there are other resolutions than the
suggested one: the visit at the time of Pilate's removal could have
been confused with an earlier visit in 36 (as described in Louis
Feldman's footnote in the Loeb edition). Saulnier has a rejoinder
ready: that Vitellius was too busy with the Parthian war of 35-36 to
make two visits to Jerusalem. In response to that, one can note that
war was waged in summer months, so there was time in the winter for
Vitellius to look over his territories.
It is not impossible that two things
occurred at the same time: the attack on Aretas and the removal of
Pilate. If Saulnier wishes to argue that Vitellius could go to
Jerusalem to take care of matters after removing Pilate, it seems
one can further argue that he can combine two goals in one, by
marching on Aretas through Judea. Perhaps that actually is the
explanation for Vitellius' route against Aretas.
The year 37, or 38, was Josephus'
birth year. He might have known something from his parents about
what was going on in Jerusalem at this time. (On the other hand,
such memories can also be the source of errors that one is most