Flavius Descriptions of John the Baptist

The New Testament

Flavius’ Descriptions of John the Baptist are different from those of the gospels. John’s program is not just described only by the Gospels but also by Josephus:

“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 baptism. 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”

(Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119)

Part of Flavius’ descriptions of John the Baptist is that baptism wasn’t a design to gain pardon for whatever sins people had committed. On the contrary, Josephus describes John’s Baptism as designed for a consecration of the body after the soul has already been cleansed of its sins by proper behavior. In other words, one would have repented, and as a public sign gone to John and submitted to baptism. Fascinating is what Josephus doesn’t tell us about John: he ascribes to John no eschatological concerns; there is no repent for the kingdoms at hand.

Did Josephus did not know this aspect of John the Baptist or did he suppressed it?

Perhaps he was afraid that his audience in Rome would find this Jewish eschatology a little weird. At least the Gospels and Josephus are agreeing that John preached for the baptism of repentance and that he did immerse people in the Jordan.

This aspect of John the Baptist has caused some consternation on the part of some people of the Church. Because if John the Baptist is preaching a baptism for the remission of sins. Why did Jesus who is described as sinless submit himself for baptism? Matthew explains was to fulfill all righteousness. Righteousness is a key term for Matthew. In Matthew Jesus humbles himself for doing this. shows what he believes to be proper and thus presents himself as a model to others. John finesses the issue; is not even clear in the Gospel of John if Jesus is baptized. Luke makes it clear from this prepartum announcement this in utero salutation of John the Baptist to Jesus. that John the Baptist is certainly subordinate to Jesus, so the baptism becomes less of a problem. Mark does not find it to be a problem at all.

John’s the Baptist Execution

Both Josephus and the Gospels do associate Herod’s execution of John with Herod’s marital situation; although Josephus gives a different configuration of who was married to whom. to pick up the Gospel narrative, in Mark 6:21-23:

21 Finally the opportune moment came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.”23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”

Mark 6:21-23

The term Eukairou is also used in Mark to describe Judas who looked for “an opportune moment” to betray Jesus. So Mark is associating Herod Antipas solely through language with Pontius Pilate. Korasion is a little girl in Greek and it is used to describe Jairus’ 12-year-old daughter whom Jesus heals. The offer of half the kingdom appears in the Book of Esther in the Old Testament and elsewhere.

It’s a standard Folktale Motif. and it alerts us that what Mark is doing is presenting a very stylized story that people in Mark’s audience would have recognized. Indeed the scene itself suggest a fictional or at the least folkloric model. Royal princesses did not dance before men at birthday parties. So Mark’s intent here is to present the court of Herod Antipas as thoroughly debauched.

An Illusion to the Old Testament

Mark had constructed this particular story of Herod Antipas, Herodias, and John the Baptist to mirror a story from the Old Testament, the account of Elijah’s struggle (1 Kings 18) with two people that were in power during his time, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. And once again it is the Queen Herodias like Jezebel who is the evil one and it was the King Ahab like Herod Antipas who was manipulated to what he knows to be wrong. Then the story continues in Mark 6:24-28

24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered. 25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother.

Mark 6:24-28

Josephus’ Version of John’s Execution

Josephus offers a new perspective: John is killed not because of his complaint against Herod’s marriage. But because of his popularity. Herod had fallen in love with Herodias. But in order to marry her and to give a position of preeminence in the house, he had to divorce his first wife; who had happened to be a Nabatean Princes. So there is actually a border war about this divorce and Herod’s army is defeated. And then we pick with Josephus that says that the destruction of Herod’s army seems to be divine vengeance and definitely just because of Herod’s treatment of John the Baptist.

Herod had put him to death because others had joined him and Herod became alarmed. It looked to Herod like people would be guided by John in everything that they did; so Herod took a preemptive strike and killed John before a revolution would break out. The verdict of the Jewish population according to Josephus was the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John. Because God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod. John says nothing about Herodias daughter nothing about the silver platter, nothing about the dance.

Last Conclusions:

Whether John actually complained about the marriage of the Ruler of Galilee, King Herod Antipas, or whether Herod Antipas engaged in a preemptive strike against John because he was so popular, we may never know because the sources differ. But they were bound to collide Herod winding up imprisoning John, and then we are told in the Gospels on the occasion of his birthday, Herod Antipas was so pleased that his stepdaughter had danced for him, that he promised everything that she wanted even up to half of his kingdom and the daughter prompted by her mother said to give the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter.

Jesus is Taken to the High Priest
In This Photo: The Herodian Quarter in the Jewish Quarter, Old Town Jerusalem

Herod beheaded John. We learn from this immediately that to be a popular profit; to be a charismatic leader in the 1st century meant to risk one’s life. That is the short story of John the Baptist. But in fact, his story is told in four different gospels; as well as by the historian Josephus. When we look at all of these sources we find his life much richer and much more complex. Our sources for understanding John on one hand are coming from other Christians but Christians who followed Jesus and not John, and John had offered an alternative path.

Josephus Versus the Gospels

Josephus Flavius (c.37-100) mentions John in his book Antiquities of the Jews but he had never met John so his report is dependent on hearsay; moreover, Josephus has his own biases, Josephus is writing in Rome with an intended audience, upper-class Romans and very Hellenized Jews, and he is intending to explain and justify Jewish beliefs and Jewish history to a group of people who may feel uncomfortable with this strange population out there in the Middle East.

Josephus presents John as a popular leader executed by Herod as a preemptive strike not because of his complaint of Herod’s marriage and not because of his religious concerns. The Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that more or less tell the same story: depicts John as the new Elijah the Prophet from the 9th B.C.E who shows up in the Old Testament, because many did believe that Elijah would reaper to announce to the coming of the Messiah.

That was suggested by various texts in the Old Testament. Yet all three Synoptics with various degrees of details suggest that there is some sort of rivalry between John and Jesus; and between the followers of Jesus and the followers of John. The Gospel of John for example suggests (John 1:21) that he’s not Elijah he has nothing to do with Elijah. All John the Baptist wants to do in the Fourth Gospel is to say his role is to proclaim the coming of the Lamb of God.

The Meaning of Being a Prophet Under the Roman Rule

The story of the daughter had become a major issue in later church history and in later secular culture. The daughter comes to be known as Salome. We find that she shows up poetry, a play by Oscar Wilde, and much more. But the story of John tells us is that in order to be a profit you need to risk one’s life. We have other examples of people who similarly risk their lives. In the year 36 C.E, a man Josephus calls the ‘Samaritan Prophet’. He led a crowd of Samaritans up Mt.Gerizim; Which was where the Samaritan Temple stood. Where he promised to reveal to them sacred vessels Moses had stored.

Pontius Pilate recognizes a huge crowd is gathered he sends out his cavalry. There is a huge massacre, and because of this massacre, Pilate is actually removed from office. Between 44-46, C.E Josephus recounts a fellow named Theudas. Whom Josephus refers to as an imposter. He persuaded masses to join him and to head out to the Jordan River where Theudas claimed the river will part and make an easy passage. The Roman Governor, Cuspius Fadus, sends out the Roman army, and Theudas is beheaded.

Governor Felix

Under Felix, yet another governor, a still worse blow was given to the Jews by a fellow simply called by Josephus ‘The Egyptian’. He had gained for himself the reputation as a prophet. This man led about 30,000 men, women, and children from the desert to the Mt.Olives; where he proposed he would force his way to Jerusalem, he would overcome the Roman garrison and he would set himself as the Messiah. He failed as well because to speak against Rome or against the Emperor, to threaten the Status Quo in any way, to gather a crowd was politically provocative and it was dangerous.

Ending Notes

From the start of his mission, John knew that his life is in danger, and so did Jesus as well. Yet the enormously great followers of John and Jesus continued to proclaim the message of their leaders: repent because the kingdom is at hand. Ultimately perhaps John leaves us with admiration and inspiration. But still with questions: What do we make those distinct portraits in the Gospels and in Josephus? Did Jesus continue John’s eschatological concerns; or did he adopt another program? What was the relationship between John’s followers and Jesus’ followers?


Hi! My name is Arik Haglili, an Israeli native who decided to dedicate his life to share my knowledge about the Holy Land to those that are interested to know more about this amazing piece of land. My career as a private tour guide started at the International School For the Studying of the Holocaust and the rest is history. 

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