Until today, I was agnostic about John the Baptist’s existence. Most scholars accept Josephus’ reference to John the Baptist (Antiquities 18 Chapter 5) as authentic. In my opinion, it seems rather clunky, but I did not have enough compelling reasons to doubt its authenticity, and frankly, John the Baptist has never been on my radar, except in the context of his relationship to the Gnostic Mandaeans:
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…
…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.
Something caught my eye today, and in my opinion seems likely to have given rise to John the Baptist’s invention.
Consider Josephus’ claim about Theudas (Antiquities 20 Chapter 5):
Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea [44-46], that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them; who, falling upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem.
Several elements of Josephus’ description of Theudas are relevant here, and are striking parallels to John the Baptist (and Jesus):
- Theudas was a magician
- His followers followed him to the River Jordan
- He was a claimed prophet
- He was beheaded by the super-mean Judean procurator (Fadus)
I went back and read Josephus’ Antiquities Chapter 18. The first detail that caught my attention was the reference to John’s “inclination to raise a rebellion”. Theudas was never explicitly linked to a rebellion, but Acts of the Apostles 5:35-37 says that Theudas had 400 followers, certainly enough to cause trouble for local leaders.
Acts of the Apostles 5:35-37
Men of Israel, be cautious in deciding what to do with these men. Some time ago, Theudas came forward, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. But he was killed and his whole following was broken up and disappeared. After him came Judas the Galilean at the time of the census; he induced some people to revolt under his leadership, but he too perished and his whole following was scattered
*Note: Interestingly, although perhaps not entirely relevant, is that immediately after Acts’ reference to Theudas, a revolt was mentioned, with regard to Judas of Galilee – this leads into the so-called “Theudas problem“, where Acts of the Apostles committed an historical error, in terms of saying that Judas of Galilee came after Theudas; Judas of Galilee was active several decades before Theudas.
If the John the Baptist section in Antiquities was an interpolation, we should be able to extract the section out, and the text would make more sense than it does with the section.
Here are the sentences before and after the John the Baptist section:
So Herod wrote about these affairs to Tiberius, who being very angry at the attempt made by Aretas, wrote to Vitellius to make war upon him, and either to take him alive, and bring him to him in bonds, or to kill him, and send him his head [my note: not John the Baptist’s head!]. This was the charge that Tiberius gave to the president of Syria.
[…John the Baptist Section…]
So Vitellius prepared to make war with Aretas, having with him two legions of armed men; he also took with him all those of light armature, and of the horsemen which belonged to them, and were drawn out of those kingdoms which were under the Romans, and made haste for Petra, and came to Ptolemais
You can decide for yourself, but in my opinion, removing the John the Baptist section gives this text more coherence. Of course, that’s not proof, as there are plenty of Josephus passages that read awkwardly. But I think the John the Baptist section was a later addition.
If John the Baptist was an invention based on Theudas, that would make sense, because Theudas was again reused in other Christian traditions, as he was made to be a follower of Paul, and revealed Paul’s secret mystical communication techniques to 2nd century Christian heretic, Valentinus. Given Christianity’s early inclinations to rely on Josephus for their stories, it seems that John the Baptist is simply one more example of this.