May 212015


While not nearly as much ink has been spilled over the reference to John the Baptist found in Antiquities 18.116-119 (Whiston’s chapter 18.5.2), when compared to the case of the Testimonium to Jesus, there is still a debate to be found in the literature over the authenticity of the reference to John the Baptist in Josephus’ text. Several have ventured to postulate that the passage on John the Baptist, as well as the passage on Jesus, represents an interpolation. The arguments have not been surveyed and discussed as frequently as they should be.

One of the people to argue for interpolation in recent years has been Frank Zindler, whose reasons were summarized by Neil Godfrey. Another argument (in “Josephus’ Account of John the Baptist: A Christian Interpolation?”) has been made by Rivka Nir, which has been mentioned by Godfrey and McGrath. There is an older discussion in English from Israel Abrahams, referencing scholars such as Gerlach and Graetz. Robert Price considers an argument for inauthenticity, which is discussed by Maurice Casey. One of the more-detailed presentations, recently, pro-authenticity, can be found by Robert Webb. A review of arguments for authenticity (in an essay sub-titled “The Uncertain Authenticity of Josephus’ Witness to John the Baptist”) has been published by Clare Rothschild. There are also threads from the old Biblical Criticism & History forum from Andrew Criddle (who noted the point I made here in 2005), Toto (on Rivka Nir), ApostateAbe (on Robert Price), and PhilosopherJay (in favor of interpolation).

According to Clare Rothschild:

Unlike the study of its Christian counterparts about Jesus (A. J. 18.63-64, the so-called Testimonium Flavianum) and James (A.J. 20, 197-203), the authenticity of Josephus’ excerpt about John is hardly debated. Without demur, theologians and historians alike rely on this passage for reconstructions of John’s life.

Let’s debate it then.

Here is the passage in the Loeb translation by Loius Feldman.

Antiquities 18.114-115
Troops were mustered on each side and they were now at war, but they dispatched others as commanders instead of going themselves. In the ensuing battle, the whole army of Herod was destroyed when some refugees, who had come from the tetrarchy of Philip and had joined Herod’s army, played him false. Herod sent an account of these events to Tiberius. The latter was incensed to think that Aretas had begun hostilities and wrote Vitellius to declare war and either bring Aretas to him in chains, if he should be captured alive, or, if he should be slain, to send him his head. Such were the instructions of Tiberius to his governor in Syria.

Antiquities 18.116-119
But to some of the Jews the destruction ofHerod’s defeat is attributed to his murder of John the Baptist. Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist. For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practise justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behaviour. When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition,f for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and see his mistake. Though John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus, the stronghold that we have previously mentioned, and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod.

Antiquities 18.120
Vitellius got himself ready for war against Aretas with two legions of heavy-armed infantry and such light-armed infantry and cavalry as were attached to them as auxiliaries.

Whiston’s translation and the Greek in Niese’s edition can be read at Perseus.

The Arguments for Authenticity

We will first consider the case that can be made in favor of authenticity here.

Several of the arguments rely on the presupposition that an interpolation, if it were made, would have been made by a Christian. This is a reasonable assumption. John the Baptist is otherwise mentioned in antiquity only in Christian literature. While John the Baptist may have had some wide appeal in his lifetime, the lack of any mention in the Talmud or other such ancient and near-ancient Jewish literature suggests that his impact and influence was not felt widely in Judaism after the first century had passed. And though there are indications that there were disciples of John the Baptist after his death (Mark 6:29, Acts 18:25), there is no evidence of any literary or scribal activity in the Greek language by those disciples in antiquity, as there is for Christianity. Moreover, it seems unreasonable to suppose that the copies of this 20 book work, first published in 93 AD and again in the early second century before Josephus died, which was preserved by Christians (both our copies and Origen’s copies were transmitted by Christian scribes), were mediated by John the Baptist sectarians (instead of simply found in the publicly-sponsored libraries before being copied by Christians) when they came to Origen in the early third century. As Thackeray once noted (Josephus: The Man and the Historian, p. 130):

The Jewish historian’s works owe their preservation, not to his countrymen, but in the first instance to his Roman patrons, who honoured them with a place in the public library [Euseb. Hist. eccl. iii. 9.], and subsequently to Christians. Christian scribes have left their obvious marks in occasional marginal glosses in our extant MSS; nor can it be denied that they would be tempted, and, we may probably add, would not scruple, to alter the text of passages hostile to Christianity or even to interpolate passages of a contrary nature, especially after Christianity had become the religion of the state.

Therefore, though it might remove some of the force of these arguments to say that the interpolation were made by a non-Christian, it introduces other difficulties to suppose otherwise, and we would then still be left with the authenticity of the passage as the most reasonable conclusion available to us.

(1) The Textual Witness Itself

The passage is found in all the manuscripts here (A, M, W) and in the first printed edition. Yet, as Rothschild notes, “Today we have only three Greek manuscripts of this portion of the Antiquitates, the earliest of which dates to the eleventh century.” It is also attested by the Latin translation made in the sixth century. It is referenced already by Origen in the middle of the third century (Against Celsus, 1.47), who places it in the 18th book of the Antiquities, with these words.

I would like to say to Celsus, who represents the Jew as accepting somehow John as a Baptist, who baptized Jesus, that the existence of John the Baptist, baptizing for the remission of sins, is related by one who lived no great length of time after John and Jesus. For in the 18th book of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who underwent the rite.

It is quoted nearly in full by Eusebius in the early fourth century in Hist. Eccl. 1.11.1-6, who omits the last sentence found in the passage, after “and there slain” (i.e., “Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him”). This minor omission can be said to speak slightly in the favor of the passage’s authenticity, in that it cannot reasonably be said to have derived from the text of Eusebius.

1. Not long after this John the Baptist was beheaded by the younger Herod, as is stated in the Gospels. Josephus also records the same fact, making mention of Herodias by name, and stating that, although she was the wife of his brother, Herod made her his own wife after divorcing his former lawful wife, who was the daughter of Aretas, king of Petra, and separating Herodias from her husband while he was still alive.
2. It was on her account also that he slew John, and waged war with Aretas, because of the disgrace inflicted on the daughter of the latter. Josephus relates that in this war, when they came to battle, Herod’s entire army was destroyed,192 and that he suffered this calamity on account of his crime against John.
3. The same Josephus confesses in this account that John the Baptist was an exceedingly righteous man, and thus agrees with the things written of him in the Gospels. He records also that Herod lost his kingdom on account of the same Herodias, and that he was driven into banishment with her, and condemned to live at Vienne in Gaul.
4. He relates these things in the eighteenth book of the Antiquities, where he writes of John in the following words: “It seemed to some of the Jews that the army of Herod was destroyed by God, who most justly avenged John called the Baptist.
5. For Herod slew him, a good man and one who exhorted the Jews to come and receive baptism, practicing virtue and exercising righteousness toward each other and toward God; for baptism would appear acceptable unto Him when they employed it, not for the remission of certain sins, but for the purification of the body, as the soul had been already purified in righteousness.
6. And when others gathered about him (for they found much pleasure in listening to his words), Herod feared that his great influence might lead to some sedition, for they appeared ready to do whatever he might advise. He therefore considered it much better, before any new thing should be done under John’s influence, to anticipate it by slaying him, than to repent after revolution had come, and when he found himself in the midst of difficulties. On account of Herod’s suspicion John was sent in bonds to the above-mentioned citadel of Machæra, and there slain.”

The final publication of the Ecclesiastical History is dated to A.D. 325. John P. Meier notes (“John the Baptist in Josephus: Philology and Exegesis” in Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 111, no. 2, p. 226): “Although the dating of the Ecclesiastical History, which probably went through various stages of redaction, is debated, book 1 was most likely completed before AD 303. Section 116 and part of 117 of the Baptist passage are also cited by Eusebius (with slight variations) in his De Demonstratione Evangelica Libri Decem 9.5.15.”

There is a translation of De Demonstratione Evangelica here (which is dated by W.J. Ferrar “between A.D. 314 and A.D. 318”):

Josephus, too, records his story in the Eighteenth Book of the Jewish Archeology, writing as follows: “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 righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism. For so the washing would be acceptable to Him.”

This argument by itself is certainly not decisive, particularly for those who believe that there has been some tampering in the Antiquities 20.200 passage, which Origen also references, and for those who regard the Testimonium Flavianum as interpolated, though it appears in the extant manuscripts. But there should also be some level of concern for anyone who views the Testimonium even as just partially interpolated. As Emil Schürer writes, in a footnote:

But since Josephus in other passages has been certainly interpolated by a Christian hand, we cannot be here perfectly confident regarding its genuineness.

The most that might be said, on this basis alone, is that a suggestion of interpolation here should require some decent arguments to substantiate it.

(2) The Unlikelihood of an Interpolation on John Being Inserted First

But there is, in fact, an even stronger argument available for those who regard the Testimonium Flavianum to be an interpolation made sometime after Origen (in the late third century or early fourth century). This is because Origen already attests to the passage on John as being present in Antiquities book 18, in order to substantiate the existence of John the Baptist (which is in any case already conceded by “the Jew” of Celsus’ dialogues). This is one of the many strong arguments that are frequently recognized as showing that the passage on Jesus in book 18 were interpolated. And it is an argument that demonstrates, in particular, that the interpolation of the passage on Jesus on book 18 were made after the time of Origen (by which time the passage on John was certainly in book 18 of the Antiquities). Likewise, and more controversially, all the arguments for establishing Eusebius as the author of the Testimonium would lend support to the same conclusion about when the interpolation of Antiquities 18.63-64 was made: after the passage on John was already present in the Antiquities book 18.

It seems highly unlikely that any Christian, whether Jewish Christian or Gentile Christian (it does not matter for this argument), would have interpolated a lengthy passage on John into Josephus, while leaving the text bereft of any passage regarding the much more important figure in Christian belief, i.e., Jesus.

(3) The Unlikelihood of a Christian Interpolation on John Saying Nothing of Jesus

Someone might imagine that the passage on John the Baptist was interpolated at the same time as the passage on Jesus. Yet, as Meier states (“John the Baptist in Josephus,” p. 227):

The account Josephus gives of the Baptist is literarily and theologically unconnected with the account of Jesus, which occurs earlier in book 18 and correspondingly lacks any reference to the Baptist. The passage about the Baptist, which is more than twice as long as the passage about Jesus, is also notably more laudatory. It also differs from (but does not formally contradict) the four Gospels in its presentation both of John’s ministry and of his death. Hence it is hard to imagine a Christian scribe inserting into book 18 of the Antiquities two passages about Jesus and the Baptist in which the Baptist appears on the scene after Jesus dies, has no connection with Jesus, receives more extensive treatment than Jesus, and is praised more highly than Jesus.

This feature of the passage is strange for a Christian interpolator, even without reference to the passage in Josephus regarding Jesus. As an illustration of the general tendency at work in Christian presentations of John the Baptist, one could quote Mark 1:7-8, which portrays the preaching of John the Baptist with these words:

And he was preaching, and saying, “After me One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Even Eusebius, who had read Josephus, can’t help but try to associate the passages on John and Jesus together. Eusebius writes, immediately after giving the quotation regarding John the Baptist (Hist. Eccl. 1.11.7):

After relating these things concerning John, he makes mention of our Saviour in the same work, in the following words: [the Testimonium Flavianum follows]

Naturally enough, of course, all the references to John the Baptist in Christian literature (chiefly, the Gospels) understand John primarily in relation to Jesus, especially when it comes to John’s baptizing activity, as John is remembered in the Christian tradition not just as the Baptist but also as the one who baptized Jesus.

Robert Webb puts it this way (John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Sociohistorical Study, p. 40):

[I]f this passage was a Christian interpolation, then we would expect an account which would more closely conform to the NT traditions about John. This expectation is reasonable because the probable purpose of such a Christian interpolation would be to confirm the NT account. However, there are a number of significant differences between the Josephan account and the NT. Some of these include the description of John’s message, the explanation of John’s baptism, and the reason for his arrest and execution. But the most significant difference is the silence of this text on the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus.

The fact that the passage makes no reference to Jesus in its discussion of John the Baptist suggests that it was written from a non-Christian perspective, which speaks against the hypothesis that the passage is interpolated.

(4) Teaching Attributed to the Baptist Consistent with Josephus’ Aims

This passage says nothing at all about expectations regarding the end of days or the coming of a Messiah, even though these were central to the message attributed to John the Baptist in the New Testament Gospels. On the other hand, this would be understandable coming from Josephus, whether or not a historical John the Baptist had eschatological expectations. As Charles Scobie notes, Josephus has a deliberate tendency to “omit all references to Messianic expectations of the Jews, and to idealize certain aspects of Judaism, representing the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, for example, as if they were Greek philosophical sects.” (John the Baptist, p. 19)

Robert Webb points out how this passage appears on the surface to reflect the redactional purposes of Josephus, writing to a Hellenized Roman audience in an attempt to increase the appeal of Judaism in their eyes, in its account of John’s message (John the Baptizer, p. 189). There is some level of inherent tension between Josephus’ emphasis on the platitudes of good living and John’s practice of cleansing people in Jordan, which it seems that Josephus defused by saying that those coming to him had already been cleansed inwardly by righteousness, thus allowing the message of John to be considered as essentially the same as that of a Hellenistic moral philosopher.

Thus, according to Josephus, an integral part of John’s call to baptism was an ethical imperative ‘to practice virtue and act with justice toward one another and with piety toward God’. Since the precise terminology used by Josephus to describe the content of John’s ethical imperative reflects categories which would be more understandable to Josephus’ Roman audience than those which may have been actually used by John, John’s proclamation could best be summarized as a call to a righteous lifestyle. This summary is suggested by Josephus’ own summary of John’s ethical imperative when he states later in 18.117 that ‘the soul had already been cleansed before by righteousness‘. If this is what John called the people to do, then it suggests he believed they were not living righteously, and that he was calling them to ‘turn’ to a diffferent lifestyle. While Josephus’ description contains both ‘piety toward God’ and ‘justice toward one another’, it lacks the radical orientation of conversionary repentance indicated by the NT evidence, but this lack is probably due to Josephus’ Hellenizing of John’s message.

John P. Meier notes the same thing of this passage (“John the Baptist in Josephus,” p. 234).

From the initial stark juxtaposition of kteinei and agathon onwards, Josephus’s intention in describing the Baptist is obviously apologetic. Any idea of John’s fiery eschatological proclamation of a day of judgment that will make irrelevant all ethnic ties, a judgment to be administered by a mysterious figure to come, a judgment that can be avoided only by submitting to John’s baptism of repentence – in short, all these strange, disruptive, or disturbing ideas can have no place in Josephus’ presentation, if indeed he ever had any knowledge of them. If Josephus did know these aspects of the Baptist’s message, he naturally suppressed them, since he regularly plays down or removes eschatological and messianic expectations present in his sources. … Accordingly, in Josephus John is reduced to a popular moral philosopher in the Greco-Roman mode, with a slight hint of a neo-Pythagorean performing ritual lustrations. The whole point of a special baptism, to be administered to Jews only by John (hence his surname), becomes unintelligible. If the Synoptic portrait of John the Baptist did not exist, something like it would have to be invented to supply the material that Josephus either suppresses or simply does not know.

This characteristic, then, is more expected of Josephus and less expected of any interpolator.

(5) The Nature of John’s Baptism in Disagreement with the Gospels

One of the points on which there is disagreement between this passage and the Gospels is the nature of John’s baptism. In Mark and Luke, at least, this is a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4)

And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; (Luke 3:3)

This argument can find some support in the development of the transmission of Josephus witnessed in the Latin versions here, beginning from Rufinus’ Latin translation of Eusebius’ Church History (401 AD). As Levenson and Martin note (“The Latin Translations of Josephus on Jesus, John the Baptist, and James,” p. 39):

In Josephus (reproduced by Eusebius), John says that baptism cannot be used for asking forgiveness for misdeeds. Rufinus (reproduced by LAJ) reverses the meaning of the Greek by saying that baptism can serve to wash away sins, something that Josephus specifically excludes.

Rufinus then takes the liberty of justifying his alteration, as noted (ibid., p. 40):

Rufinus (followed by LAJ) adds a clause not found in the Greek to make the Christian theological point that baptism is a signaculum and custodia quaedam fidelis of all the virtues, in order to avoid the implication that baptism is a reward for good deeds.

This particular argument, however, is not completely sound. Although Mark and Luke describe the baptism of John this way, and although Rufinus bothers to correct this quotation of Josephus so as to reverse the meaning entirely, that does not mean that all Christians would understand the baptism of John similarly. Besides, this is not just an incidental disagreement with Christian ideas without any apparent explanation; it is a literal negation of a specific doctrine, which is not so hard to imagine as still (plausibly, anyway) belonging somewhere within the orbit of Christian thought.

Some may have been uncomfortable with the implications of the idea that John’s baptism was meant for the forgiveness of sin (as contrasted with Christian baptism), because of the idea that Jesus, who is without sin, received it. This seems to be already somewhat apparent in the Gospel of Matthew, where the author has redacted out the phrase “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” That this discomfort is real, in the Gospel of Matthew, is made clear at Matthew 3:14.

Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him.But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him. (Matthew 3:13-15)

Clare Rothschild argues accordingly (“Echo of a Whisper,” in Ablution, Initiation, and Baptism, p. 268):

Most scholars think that Christian redaction cannot account for the claim in A.J. because it contradicts the celebrated Markan proclamation – contradicting Christian claims being equated with authenticity. It is possible, however, that in not just removing but denying ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4 par.) a Christian editor sought to settle once and for all the question that surfaces in Matthew. One may, therefore, view this line as a Christian contradiction of Mark 1:4 par., as a Christian insertion favoring Matt 3:14-15 over Mark 1:4 par.

Indeed, the lengthy article by Rivka Nir and one of the points made by Robert Price, in favor of interpolation, as well as the earlier discussion of Israel Abrahams (responding to an argument similar to that of Nir and Price), revolve around precisely this. Credit for this point thus does not rightfully belong in the authenticity column, in the final accounting, although it may perhaps be denied to either side.

(6) A Poor Chronological Fit with the Timeline of the Gospels

The New Testament shows John the Baptist as active prior to Jesus and narrates his death during the ministry of Jesus. The death of Jesus is placed when Pilate is prefect in the New Testament Gospels. Book 18 of the Antiquities begins its discussion of Pilate at Ant. 18.2.2 (Ant. 18.35) terminates its discussion of Pilate at Ant. 18.4.2 (Ant. 18.89). Before and during the discussion of Pilate, there is some discussion of Herod Antipas from Ant. 18.2.1 (Ant. 18.27) to Ant. 18.2.3 (Ant. 18.38). If a Christian were interpolating a passage on John the Baptist into the text of Josephus, it would be more expected that the location chosen would be close to the earlier discussion of Herod Antipas and thus just before or during the discussion of Pilate, in accordance with the chronology of the New Testament Gospels.

On the other hand, if an original mention by Josephus, it would be more understandable to position the reference in such a location in his narrative as to make it seem plausible that John the Baptist might have been executed close in time to 36 AD, by which time Pilate had already been removed from office (and thus make it seem that John the Baptist could have died after Jesus of Nazareth, a person whom Josephus does not mention in connection with John the Baptist, who died under Pilate in Christian tradition). In this regard, not only is the location of the passage relevant but so is the fact that the death of John the Baptist is mentioned as being regarded, by some of the Jews, as the reason for the defeat of Herod Antipas (which happened near the beginning of 37 AD). None of this seems likely to be the invention of a Christian interpolator.

(7) The Reason for the Execution of John in Disagreement with the Gospels

This passage implies that Herod Antipas had calculating political motives for executing John, while the New Testament Gospels provide a different reason for the arrest and execution of John. Mark 6:14-29 has the arrest of John happening because John the Baptist criticized the unlawful divorce and remarriage of King Herod and has the execution of John the Baptist occurring because of the request from his new wife.

14 King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” 15 Others said, “He is Elijah.” And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.” 16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”

17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man.When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.

21 Finally the opportune time 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.”

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. 29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Despite the fact that this passage follows immediately after a description of Herod Antipas disposing of his wife, the daughter of the Nabatean king, who fled to Aretas IV, which set off the war, the passage on John the Baptist does not take any space to mention anything of John saying anything similar to the statement of Mark 6:18. This is highly unusual in an interpolated account of John the Baptist’s death supposedly being made by someone who knew John from the Gospel stories and who thus knew the nature of the vivid tale told there.

The reason actually provided in the Antiquities 18.116-119 passage for the arrest and execution of John, a fear on the part of Herod Antipas of the sway that John had with the people, leads into the next point.

(8) Political Contextualizing More Characteristic of Josephus

The passage makes two statements that put the story in political context, which makes sense as something that Josephus would write but which would less likely be a concern of a Christian interpolator. The passage connects the death of John the Baptist to the claim that many believed that the defeat of Herod Antipas was punishment for what he had done to John the Baptist, whom they considered a good man. This is both the lead “in” to the passage and again the lead “out” of the passage, as the first and final statements connecting this passage to its context:

So they raised armies on both sides, and prepared for war, and sent 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, joined with Aretas’s army. 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. This was the charge that Tiberius gave to the president of Syria. 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 …

… Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him. 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.

The other bit of political contextualizing found in the passage on John concerns the reason given for Herod Antipas killing him (whether we regard this as something drawn from earlier sources or simply something that could have been imagined by Josephus as a plausible explanation).

Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, 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.

Here the reason given for Herod’s execution of John is the fear that someone as popular as John could succesfully lead a rebellion of the people against his rule. This is something the author seems to imply is a bit paranoid, due to “Herod’s suspicious temper,” so it is not as though Josephus is endorsing rebellion by praising John the Baptist; instead, it seems that Josephus is indicating that Herod Antipas was overreaching in his suspicion of John. As John P. Meier writes (“John the Baptist in Josephus,” p. 232):

It is not by accident that when “the others,” the larger general population, are introduced into the narrative, we hear about excitement (erthesan), John’s persuasive power over the people in general (note the generic tois anthropois), and Herod’s fear that all this could lead to revolt. Josephus, however, is emphatic in attributing any idea of revolt to the mind of Herod, not to the Baptist or the people. He goes on to stress that Herod quite consciously undertook a preemptive strike (prolabon) in doing away (anelein) with John. The preacher of virtue and bodily purification might be quite harmless when addressing a religious elite; and even when the common people flocked to him, he did not – at least for the present – urge revolt. But things might change (metaboles genomenes); so better safe than sorry (kreitton . . . anelein tou . . . metanoien).

John P. Meier’s point about the specific wording here (about John’s influence expanding to “people,” “the others,” the larger general population) would be further strengthened if J. M. Creed’s short note regarding “Josephus on John the Baptist,” as follows, is accepted:

The editors themselves translate as follows: ‘For Herod killed him, a good man, and one who commanded the Jews, training themselves in virtue and practising righteousness to one another and piety towards God, to come together for baptism.’ This translation is literal, but ambiguous. It might still bear the same meaning as Whiston’s more idiomatic version … or it may mean … ‘John commanded those Jews, who were training themselves in virtue … to come together for baptism.’ The editors of The Beginnings of Christianity make it plain that they intend the latter sense. ‘According to Whiston’, they say, ‘it means that John was addressing penitents, who were only beginning to turn to the pursuit of virtue. … But in view of the general content, it would rather seem that Josephus means that John preached originally to those who were already making especial practice of virtue’ (p. 102). Later on they speak more confidently: ‘The true text of Josephus represents him as preaching first to a body of “ascetics”, and afterwards to others’ (p. 105).

Compare a similar story about an influential prophet being cut down swiftly for fear of his potential power (Antiquities 18.85-88), to whom Josephus is unsympathetic (but which does lead to the defenestration of Pilate).

But the nation of the Samaritans did not escape without tumults. The man who excited them to it was one who thought lying a thing of little consequence, and who contrived every thing so that the multitude might be pleased; so he bid them to get together upon Mount Gerizzim, which is by them looked upon as the most holy of all mountains, and assured them, that when they were come thither, he would show them those sacred vessels which were laid under that place, because Moses put them there. So they came thither armed, and thought the discourse of the man probable; and as they abode at a certain village, which was called Tirathaba, they got the rest together to them, and desired to go up the mountain in a great multitude together; but Pilate prevented their going up, by seizing upon file roads with a great band of horsemen and foot-men, who fell upon those that were gotten together in the village; and when it came to an action, some of them they slew, and others of them they put to flight, and took a great many alive, the principal of which, and also the most potent of those that fled away, Pilate ordered to be slain. But when this tumult was appeased, the Samaritan senate sent an embassy to Vitellius, a man that had been consul, and who was now president of Syria, and accused Pilate of the murder of those that were killed; for that they did not go to Tirathaba in order to revolt from the Romans, but to escape the violence of Pilate.

If we were to imagine the story of this unnamed Samaritan prophet being told by people who were either his followers or who were at least Samaritans and highly sympathetic to him, we might expect less of those details that Josephus supplies here and more about the (apparently, non-violent) teaching and prophecy made by this man and about his followers who expected great things at Mount Gerizim. But just as this story about a Samaritan prophet retains Josephus’ characteristic emphasis on political motives and the progression of the politically-focused historical narrative, so does, similarly, the passage on John the Baptist.

We can indeed see the contrast clearly in another case, where another account actually has been preserved. This is the account of Honi the Circle-Drawer found in the Mishnah (Taanit 3:8),  an apparently-independent Jewish account compiled from tradition and written down approximately in the third century AD.

They sound the shofar because of any public distress — may it never befall! — but not because of too great an abundance of rain. Once they said to Honi the Circle-Drawer, “Pray that rain may fall.”

He answered, “Go out and bring in the Passover ovens [made of clay] that they be not softened.” He prayed, but the rain did not fall. What did he do? He drew a circle and stood within it and said before God, “O Lord of the world, your children have turned their faces to me, for I am like a son of the house before you. I swear by your great name that I will not stir from here until you have pity on your children.”

Rain began falling drop by drop. He said, “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain that will fill the cisterns, pits, and caverns.” It began to rain with violence. He said, “Not for such rain have I prayed, but for rain of goodwill, blessing, and graciousness.” Then it rained in moderation, until the Israelites had to go up from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount because of the rain. They went to him and said, “Just as you prayed for the rain to come, so pray that it may go away!”

He replied, “Go and see if the Stone of the Strayers has disappeared.” Simeon ben Shetah sent to him, saying, “Had you not been Honi I would have pronounced a ban against you! But what shall I do to you? You importune God and he performs your will, like a son that importunes his father he performs his will. Of you the Scripture says, ‘Let your father and your mother be glad, and let her that bore you rejoice.’ “

The account is apolitical and disconnected from secular history. The only circumstance mentioned is that this happened during Passover when there was a drought. Compare Josephus (Antiquities 14.19-28).

(After these promises had been given to Aretas, he made an expedition against Aristobulus with an army of fifty thousand horse and foot, and beat him in the battle. And when after that victory many went over to Hyrcanus as deserters, Aristobulus was left desolate, and fled to Jerusalem; upon which the king of Arabia took all his army, and made an assault upon the temple, and besieged Aristobulus therein, the people still supporting Hyreanus, and assisting him in the siege, while none but the priests continued with Aristobulus. So Aretas united the forces of the Arabians and of the Jews together, and pressed on the siege vigorously. As this happened at the time when the feast of unleavened bread was celebrated, which we call the passover, the principal men among the Jews left the country, and fled into Egypt.)

Now there was one, whose name was Onias, a righteous man he was, and beloved of God, who, in a certain drought, had prayed to God to put an end to the intense heat, and whose prayers God had heard, and had sent them rain. This man had hid himself, because he saw that this sedition would last a great while. However, they brought him to the Jewish camp, and desired, that as by his prayers he had once put an end to the drought, so he would in like manner make imprecations on Aristobulus and those of his faction.

And when, upon his refusal, and the excuses that he made, he was still by the multitude compelled to speak, he stood up in the midst of them, and said, “O God, the King of the whole world! since those that stand now with me are thy people, and those that are besieged are also thy priests, I beseech thee, that thou wilt neither hearken to the prayers of those against these, nor bring to effect what these pray against those.” Whereupon such wicked Jews as stood about him, as soon as he had made this prayer, stoned him to death.

(But God punished them immediately for this their barbarity, and took vengeance of them for the murder of Onias, in the manner following: While the priests and Aristobulus were besieged, it happened that the feast called the passover was come, at which it is our custom to offer a great number of sacrifices to God; but those that were with Aristobulus wanted sacrifices, and desired that their countrymen without would furnish them with such sacrifices, and assured them they should have as much money for them as they should desire; and when they required them to pay a thousand drachmae for each head of cattle, Aristobulus and the priests willingly undertook to pay for them accordingly, and those within let down the money over the walls, and gave it them. But when the others had received it, they did not deliver the sacrifices, but arrived at that height of wickedness as to break the assurances they had given, and to be guilty of impiety towards God, by not furnishing those that wanted them with sacrifices. And when the priests found they had been cheated, and that the agreements they had made were violated, they prayed to God that he would avenge them on their countrymen. Nor did he delay that their punishment, but sent a strong and vehement storm of wind, that destroyed the fruits of the whole country, till a modius of wheat was then bought for eleven drachmae.)

Like the case of John the Baptist, Onias is mentioned only in the political context of the war presently being discussed by Josephus; like the case of John the Baptist, the point for which Onias is chiefly remembered (bringing rain) is not the primary focus of the passage (as it is in the Mishnah); and like the case of John the Baptist, Onias is praised by Josephus, and there is the idea broached that the execution of a righteous man was considered the cause of God’s wrath.

These kinds of concerns seem characteristic of Josephus and his aims for writing. It is either a fortuitous accident or deliberate imitation that would lead an interpolator to have the same kind of concerns displayed here. Still, since this characteristic is more strongly predicted by authentic authorship by Josephus than it is predicted by the hypothesis of interpolation, it forms an argument for authenticity.

(9) The Connections Made from the Passage to Its Context

The very fact that the passage connects the death of John with the defeat of Herod Antipas, in the way that it does, forms a connection between the passage and its context, which is not something that we would necessarily expect from a Christian interpolation (as can be compared against the interpolation of the passage on Jesus, which forms no real relationship to the surrounding context) due to the fact that an additional burden of ingenuity, to create the appearance of a passage well-situated in context, is then placed on the interpolator.

The reference to the fortress Macherus in the passage (“Macherus, the castle I before mentioned”) forms a connection with a specific part of the text of Josephus found in a preceding passage (Antiquities 18.112), which is the kind of cross-reference Josephus frequently makes in the Antiquities and the kind of reference that would require that we suppose that any imagined interpolator was attempting to add a varnish of verisimilitude. (And, if so, the job was also done rather convincingly, over several layers touching on different aspects of analysis, as it would turn out, when looking at all the arguments).

Such is not really expected at all on the hypothesis of interpolation, yet it is more strongly expected if Josephus wrote it, as references made from one passage of the Antiquities to a previous passage are fairly typical of Josephus when there is a change of topic and something is mentioned for another time.

(10) Statistical Analysis of Style

Any argument from a statistical analysis of style is extremely delicate, with only 163 words in this passage. It can amount, at best, to the absence of an indication for inauthenticity. While it is possible that a different approach based on different measures might be valid, as it stands such an argument is, essentially, worthless.

As an illustration of the difficulty of using such an approach in this case, David S. Williams (“Josephus, Stylometry, and Jewish Studies“), who was working with 1500-word excerpts, decided to use nine “function words” (γάρ, δέ, ἐπί, καί, κατά, μέν, μὴ, πρός, ὑπό) and a relatively simple comparison of “z-score.” Now it is a general guideline of statistical analysis that we should want approximately five or more (preferrably more) instances of a feature that is expected statistically, to be indeed expected (from sampling), if its actual number (in the test group) could be considered statistically significant. Out of the nine specific words to which Williams appeals, only two of them are frequent enough to meet this general standard, i.e., the words καί and δέ.

Thus, if the approach of Williams were to be adapted to this purpose, it would have to use only those words which appear in Josephus at least 3% of the time, as these words would also be expected to appear in a passage of 163 words approximately 5 times. There are only four such words in Josephus (or, rather, lemmas): the lemma ὁ (which is 15.4% of the text), καί (5.58%), δέ (3.41%), and αὐτός (3%).

Using stylometric methods similar to the ones that Williams used, a test of eight stylometric features, based on word frequency, fails to establish anything significant regarding the authorship of this passage.

Thus it seems necessary that any argument from style be based on a qualitative analysis, guided by the insight and judgment of the practitioner regarding the significance of the observations, not just statistics.

(11) Thackeray’s Analysis of Style

Thackeray believed that he could isolate several features of vocabulary that indicated that one of Josephus’ assistants were responsible for the passage (Josephus: The Man and the Historian, p. 132):

The phraseology of this passage betrays the unmistakable marks of the hack employed for this portion of the Antiquities. His love of periphrasis is illustrated by the phrase “come to” or “consort with” baptism, for “be baptized,” his avoidance of the commonplace vocabulary by the strange words which he uses for “punish,” “kill,” and “sin”; and there are other words found only in this portion of the work. The hand is the hand of the secretary; the voice that prompts it is that of Josephus.

Thackeray makes these notes (ibid., p. 132, n. 18, 19):

τινυμένου, else only xvii. 6o (similarly of divine vengeance); κτίννυται, + xv. 118, xvii. 182, xviii. 99; ἁμαρτάς; (Ionic for ἁμαρτία), + Ant. xviii. 350, and in Ant. iii. 204, &c. (the same phrase ἐπί ἁμαρτάδων παραιτήσει iii. 238, cf. 221) doubtless from the same hand.

ἀκρόασις, φέρειν ἐπὶ τινὶ, “lead to something,” Ant. xvii. 354, xviii. 128, 169, xix. 61, 242; τοσόσδε is characteristic of this assistant.

While it is very doubtful that every stylistic feature noted by Thackeray is probative, there are a few particular things about the wording of the passage that are more expected from Josephus than from a Christian.

(12) The Words “John the Baptist” a Fixed Phrase in Christian Usage

Christian usage identified him as “John the Baptist” (Matthew 3:1, 11:11, 11:12, 14:2, 14:8, 16:14, 17:13; Mark 6:25, 8:28; Luke 7:20, 7:33, 9:19). When it comes to the term “the Baptist” (ὁ βαπτιστὴς), this can be regarded as a fixed phrase, something that co-occurred with “John” as “John the Baptist” when it is found in Christian texts. There are no variations to the use of this particular phrase, in this particular order, to be found in the New Testament whenever this word (βαπτιστὴς) appears. What is found in this passage (Ant. 18.116-119), however, is instead the phrase “John, that was called the Baptist” (Ἰωάννου τοῦ ἐπικαλουμένου βαπτιστοῦ), where the term has not attached to the name of John according to Christian usage of the fixed phrase “John the Baptist” (Ἰωάννου τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ).

This is naturally explained, of course, if the historian Josephus had heard of the fact that John was being called “the Baptist.” Even if Josephus were aware of the fixed phrase (and there is no strong reason to suppose that he wasn’t), the fact that the passage (found in Josephus) does not employ it directly does not speak to Christian usage. Nor is there any strong reason to suppose that an interpolator would have moderated his usage of the fixed phrase in order to accommodate the Jewishness of Josephus, since the phrase “John the Baptist” references a factual aspect of John and has always been of use even to secular writers.

On the other hand, it can be mentioned that Acts and the fourth gospel refer to “John” without making a full reference to “John the Baptist.” This weakens the argument slightly, as it can be said only that those Christian sources that supply the words “the Baptist” use them to form a fixed phrase “John the Baptist.” It can’t be said that Christians avoided calling him just John.

(13) The Word for “Sin” in the Passage Characteristic of Josephan Usage

Robert Webb writes, on the word for “sin” here (John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Sociohistorical Study, p. 40):

[T]he vocabulary and style are consistent with Josephan usage, which would not necessarily be the case if the passage were interpolated. This argument is strengthened when we observe in the passage unusual terminology which is also used elsewhere in the Antiquities (thus showing it to be Josephan vocabulary), but which would not be expected of a Christian interpolator. For example, for ‘sin’ in this passage Josephus uses the Ionic form ἁμαρτάς rather than ἁμαρτία; this Ionic form is also found in Ant. 18.350 and seven times in Ant. 3, but not in the NT or other early Christian literature.

In the Perseus online database (albeit a limited collection), there are three authors listed who use the Ionic form (an archaicizing usage by the first century) of this word, ἁμαρτάς: Herodotus, Strabo, and Josephus. The other form, ἁμαρτία, is much more common. The common form is found 173 times in the New Testament (according to Strong’s concordance), but the Ionic form (which is used in this passage) is not found there at all.

(14) The Word for “Baptism” in the Passage Uncharacteristic of Christian Usage

Webb discusses the word for “baptism” also (ibid., p. 39):

He uses no other nouns for ‘baptism’ than those used here [βαπτισμός and βάπτισις], which is quite strange if this text is a Christian interpolation. He never uses the noun βάπτισμα, which is the usual Christian noun for baptism (both John’s baptism and Christian baptism), and we would expect that term here if the text was a Christian interpolation.

In a footnote to the same, Webb writes:

Furthermore, Josephus’ word βάπτισις is never used in the NT or early Christian literature. The other noun he uses, βαπτισμός, is only used for washing dishes (Mk 7.4), or ritual washings (Heb. 5.2; 9.10). The only place it is used for Christian baptism is Col. 2.12, where it is textually uncertain.

The typical Christian word for baptism, βάπτισμα (which literally translates as, “the result of washing”), is used extensively in early Christian literature (Matthew 3:7, 20:22, 20:23,  21:25; Mark 1:4, 10:38, 10:39, 11:30; Luke 3:3, 7:29, 12:50, 20:4; Acts 1:22, 10:37, 13:24, 18:25, 19:3, 19:4; Romans 6:4; Ephesians 4:5; 1 Peter 3:21; Barnabas 11:1; etc.). This includes references to the “baptism of John” (Matthew 21:25, Mark 11:30, Luke 7:29, Luke 20:4, Acts 1:22, Acts 18:25) and the references to the baptizing activity of John in the Jordan (Matthew 3:7, Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3). This form of the noun (βάπτισμα) does not appear to be attested in pre-Christian Greek, while the Greek of the New Testament (at least) does not appear to use either βάπτισις or βαπτισμός to signify baptism. The passage has once again sidestepped a potential feature that would be expected of a Christian and presented with a feature that is actually expected of Josephus.

(15) Ant. 18.120 Incongruous without Ant. 18.116-119 (and Appropriate As-Is)

If Ant. 18.116-119 is removed from the text, it would read:

ταῦτα Ἡρώδης γράφει πρὸς Τιβέριον. ὁ δὲ ὀργῇ φέρων τὴν Ἀρέτα ἐπιχείρησιν γράφει πρὸς Οὐιτέλλιον πόλεμον ἐξενεγκεῖν καὶ ἤτοι ζωὸν ἑλόντα ἀναγαγεῖν δεδεμένον ἢ κτεινομένου πέμπειν τὴν κεφαλὴν ἐπ᾽ αὐτόν. καὶ Τιβέριος μὲν ταῦτα πράσσειν ἐπέστελλεν τῷ κατὰ Συρίαν στρατηγῷ. […]
Οὐιτέλλιος δὲ παρασκευασάμενος ὡς εἰς πόλεμον τὸν πρὸς Ἀρέταν …

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. This was the charge that Tiberius gave to the president of Syria. […]
“But” [δὲ] Vitellius prepared to make war with Aretas, …

This conjunction δὲ is not translated in the readily-available Whiston and Feldman in a way that makes the full force of the difficulty above in the Greek apparent to the English reader. Feldman leaves it untranslated, while Whiston translates it as “so” (which is actually not inappropriate, if it is understood in the very specific English sense of resuming the narrative after an interruption or parenthesis, as it functions after the passage on John the Baptist, not in some different sense of the English). Yet it is very strange if the passage read as it is shown above.

The poster “spin” pointed this out, regarding the appearance of δὲ here, in 2013, as follows:

It has a number of conjunctive uses, but one seems most relevant here according to L&S, see II.2

to resume after an interruption or parenthesis

which is what is to be expected if the narrative is interrupted by the John detail. There would be no need for the δε had there been no interruption. I don’t think there is anything supporting an insertion of the John material.

And “spin” also offered some examples of this usage in Josephus (not, of course, meant to imply that this is the only sense in which this conjunction, the second most common in the Greek language after καί, was used by Josephus).

  1. Consider the discussion at the beginning of bk.18 about Quirinius, which digresses onto Judas and his movement, which in tern leads into a presentation of the various Jewish sects. Eventually he gets back to his narrative which picks up at 18.26, “Quirinius δε had now liquidated the estate of Archelaus….”
  2. When Josephus digresses from his discussion of Agrippa being put in chains to talk about a servant Thaumastus (18.192-194) , he gets back to Agrippa, “Agrippa δε stood in chains in front of the palace….”
  3. Then Tiberius at 18.205 calls Evodius to bring his childrens. We then get information about them, before returning to his narrative with Tiberius and Evodius at 18.211, “After Tiberius δε had given the command to Evodius….”

The poster “ficino” provided some further clarification:

I think I can offer something here about δέ. A lot of work on Greek particles has been done since LSJ and Denniston’s The Greek Particles were published. It is more helpful to look at the primary function of δέ than at definitions of it in dictionaries, as is shown already by the fact that its two most common definitions are “and” and “but.” !!

A good number of publications came out in the 1990s and early 2000s. The current view among people who do pragmatic linguistics is that δέ segments discourse. It does not weld together units of discourse, as καί does, into a new and bigger complex; it marks that the new item is distinct from the previous one. It is not carry causal or inferential MEANING, although an author may explain a reason or draw an inference AND stick in δέ to mark a shift in what he’s now talking about.

Here’s a summary I wrote for a forthcoming article on textual problems:

A ‘discontinuous’ particle, δέ connects a new (or resumed) discourse unit to the preceding one by marking a boundary, thus segmenting the discourse. Unlike καί, a ‘continuous’ particle that welds an item to the previous one to extend the discourse unit, δέ indicates a switch from the previous piece of communication to the next (Bakker 1993, esp. 277, 288, 295-6). Some element of ‘distinctness’ defines the next piece of communication, and that distinctness “often correlates with a shift in Topic or Theme” (Rijksbaron 1997, 191 n. 11), although the contrast may sometimes lie more in the text’s segmentation than in its content (Bakker 1993, 289, 294-5).

Bakker, Egbert J. 1993. Boundaries, Topics, and the Structure of Discourse. An Investigation of the Ancient Greek Particle Dé, Studies in Language 17, 275-311
Rijksbaron, Albert. 1997. New Approaches to Greek Particles (Amsterdam)

(Topic is that which the utterance is about, usually “given” information. Theme constructions shift a Topic of later utterances forward, as in “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.” By the time you get to “they,” the topic is established as “lilies” by the left-dislocated Theme construction.)

So δέ may be used when an author has been talking about one person or situation and shifts to bring up again a person or situation that he had mentioned earlier. Or he may draw an inference AND use δέ to show that it is about someone or something different from the topic of the earlier sentence. δέ comes up a lot in historical texts because authors often switch from talking about one person or situation to talk about another one. In Spin’s example about Antipas traveling to Rome, the δέ shifts the topic from his trip to Rome to what his wife was doing while he was traveling back. In what Spin quotes, after Josephus says that Herod sent her back, δέ in ἡ δέ switches the Topic from Herod back to his wife.

“And so” is just not a definition of δέ.

Exactly right. But if the John passage is excised, then something more like “and so” would be required.

The alternative idea offered on the forum, that the sense here invoked the connotation of “implying causal connexion, less direct than γάρ” (which itself has the primary meaning of “introducing the reason or cause of what precedes, for,” i.e., ‘because’) does not prove itself to be applicable in this context. This is due to the fact δέ is not being applied to a clause that contains a cause, as it would need to be in order for this argument to work at all. This becomes apparent when we look at the two examples that the lexicon draws upon for support here.

Her long ago Laertes had bought with his wealth, when she was in her first youth, and gave for her the price of twenty oxen; and he honored her even as he honored his faithful wife in his halls, but [δὲ] he never lay with her in love, for he shunned the wrath of his wife. (Odyssey 1.430-434)

Now [δὲ] the wife of Proetus, fair Anteia, lusted madly for Bellerophon, to lie with him in secret love, but [ἀλλὰ] could in no wise prevail upon wise-hearted Bellerophon, for that his heart was upright.(Illiad 6.160-164)

Moreover, it must also be noted here that “ficino” made this further comment at the forum: “But more recent treatments fault approaches like that taken by Liddell and Scott decades ago when they said that δέ is sometimes a weak causal connector.” Notice that the translations in these examples don’t even use “for” or “because,” and notice also that there is some measure of contrast being made between the clauses in the Iliad and Odyssey, which is one of the primary functions of the particle δὲ. Not only is such usage of δὲ inapplicable here at Ant. 18.220, it is also itself a thinly-supported and somewhat controversial ‘definition’ of the Greek word.

Regardless, it is not really plausible, in this particular case of Ant. 18.220, that Josephus is supposed to have written, “This was the charge that Tiberius gave to the president of Syria, ‘because’ [δέ] Vitellius prepared to make war with Aretas.” Nor is it really plausible that Josephus wrote, using a simple primary sense of the conjunction, as a contrast (i.e., ‘but’), “This was the charge that Tiberius gave to the president of Syria, ‘but’ [δέ] Vitellius prepared to make war with Aretas.” A genuine understanding of the Greek here does not support any of the readings that would attempt to smooth out the difficulty.

In addition, the fact that Vitellius is named again (“Οὐιτέλλιος δὲ“) provides some supplementary support for seeing the statement at Ant. 18.120 as resuming the narrative after a digression, as “ficino” argues.

Wait, Vitellius and the “στρατηγός over Syria” to whom Tiberius writes at the end of AJ 18.115 are the same man, are they not? After more reflection, I suggest that δέ in “Vitellius δέ” at 120 does add a bit of weight to the thesis that the JtB passage is genuine. Here’s why.

If the JtB passage (116-119) were not by Josephus, one might expect 18.120 to begin ὁ δέ and not “Vitellius δέ.” That’s because when a prior sentence refers to someone in an oblique case, and the next sentence makes that same person the subject, the switch in Topic tends to be signalled by δέ following the old demonstrative ὁ, ἡ, τό. That’s because the reader doesn’t need a clue about the identity of someone just mentioned but, rather, about that person’s role in the discourse; that person in the new sentence is now the Topic about which some further information will be given. We see this in the example Grog cited above, where “the person,” τὴν ἄνθρωπον, is the same individual as “she” in the next sentence. So the Greek only needs the phrase ἡ δέ to clue the reader that this woman, having just been presented as the object of Herod’s actions, is now the Topic of a new utterance, in which something new is said about HER. This ὁ δέ / ἡ δέ usage is what one expects when the same person switches roles in the discourse structure. To say “Tiberius sent an order to the στρατηγός over Syria. And Vitellius…” introduces potential confusion, as though Vitellius is not the στρατηγός in question.

So in balance, I incline after all to think that δέ at beginning of 120 does the work of restoring Vitellius to Topic status after a digression.

We are left with the fact that the explanation of the text found here that has the least difficulties is also an explanation is completely straightforward, i.e., that the passage on John the Baptist actually stood where it does now in the text of Josephus’ Antiquities.

The Arguments for Inauthenticity

Clare Rothschild recently reviewed some arguments for the authenticity of the passage (the textual witness, incoherence with Christian authorship, and coherence with Josephan authorship) and found them wanting. But there have also been arguments presented against the authenticity of this passage. Some arguments for the inauthenticity of Ant. 18.116-119 have been discussed in recent years by Frank Zindler, Robert Price, Robert Webb, and Rivka Nir, among others. Let’s discuss them also.

(1) The Text Reads Intelligibly if the Passage Is Removed

Neil Godfrey notes one of the reasons that Zindler gives for suspecting an interpolation here:

The Baptist material intrudes into its context quite roughly. The paragraphs on either side of it follow perfectly if the Baptist section is removed.

Let’s suppose that this is true. This sort of thing should be expected, if the passage is an interpolation. But how likely is it to be true if the passage were genuine?

We could consider John the Baptist to belong to a general class of peripheral, marginal, or subversive characters in first century Judea and see what we can conclude about the passages on them in Josephus’ Antiquties.

This list has been developed with reference to a list at and an appendix of Horsley’s Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs, with a couple additions. In each case it is noted whether a passage could be removed from the Antiquities with a coherent text remaining (“removable”). The parallels in the Jewish War are not counted in this context.

Honi the Circle-Drawer (c. 65 BCE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 14.21-28. (Removable.)
Hezekiah (c. 47-38 BCE) ~ Jewish War 1.204-211 and Jewish Antiquities 14.159-162. (Irremovable.)
Galilean Cave Brigands (c. 38 BCE) ~ Jewish War 1.304-313 and Jewish Antiquities 14.415-430. (Removable.)
Judas son of Hezekiah (c. 4 BCE) ~ Jewish War 2.56 and Jewish Antiquities 17.271-272. (Removable.)
Simon of Peraea (c. 4 BCE) ~ Jewish War 2.57-59 and Jewish Antiquities 17.273-277. (Removable.)
Athronges (c. 4-2? BCE) ~ Jewish War 2.60-65 and Jewish Antiquities 17.278-284. (Removable.)
Judas the Galilean (6 CE) ~ Jewish War 2.118 and Jewish Antiquities 18.4-10. (Irremovable.)
The Samaritan (c. 36 CE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 18.85-87. (Irremovable.)
Tholomaus (early 40s CE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 20.5. (Removable.)
Theudas (c. 45 CE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 20.97-98. (Removable.)
Eleazar ben Dinai (30s-50s CE) ~ Jewish War 2.235-235 and Jewish Antiquities 20.161. (Removable.)
The Egyptian prophet (c. 56 CE) ~ Jewish War 2.259-263 and Jewish Antiquities 20.169-171. (Removable.)
An anonymous prophet (59 CE) ~ Jewish Antiquities 20.188. (Removable.)
Eleazar, an exorcist ~ Jewish Antiquities 8.46-49. (Removable.)

This means that 11 out of 14 passages and their surrounding context are written in such a way that the text, when read with the passage absent (for at least one demarcation of the extent of the passage), still can be read sensibly and without any evident sign that something has been removed at this point. In other words, about 79% of these passages are “removable,” which makes only 21% of them “irremovable.”

We can’t suppose that 0% of interpolated passages would appear to be “irremovable,” due to the fact that the manuscripts could have been modified in the surrounding context so as to make the passage appear to be “irremovable.” We can, perhaps, assign a 1% frequency to such cases, which makes about 99% of them “removable.”

Based on this information, we can analyze this argument in Bayesian terms, supposing equal priors (as a convention only, so as to estimate the value of this data as evidence when given a 50-50 starting point), in order to determine the strength of the cogency of this argument. (If using Bayes’ theorem in the context of historical inquiry is considered strange or even invalid, there is a recent post on another blog that may be of interest.)

Bayes’ Theorem for Hypotheses that are Logical Complements (source: Wikipedia)

Let A be the hypothesis of authenticity and let B be the idea of “removability.” If assigning equal priors, P(A) = 0.5, P(¬A) = 0.5. From the data noted above, P(B|A) = 0.79 and P(B|¬A) = 0.99. Applying Bayes’ Theorem, P(A|B) = (0.79 * 0.5) / (0.79 * 0.5 + 0.99 * 0.5) = 79 / 178 = 0.4438. That’s an adjustment of probability from 50% to 44% only (using equal priors), which is basically insignificant in the larger scheme of things. As a criterion for authenticity, this would have a 79% failure rate, if applied to the other passages, which are generally regarded as authentic.

But it’s actually worse than this. Based on the fifteenth argument noted above, in favor of authenticity, we might need to categorize this passage in the “irremovable” category instead. In this case the math works quite differently. Applying Bayes’ Theorem, assigning equal priors, and given that P(¬B|A) = 0.21 and P(¬B|¬A) = 0.01, we would arrive at P(A|¬B) = (0.21 * 0.5) / (0.21 * 0.5 + 0.01 * 0.5) = 21/22 = 0.9545. That’s going from an assigned 50% prior probability up to a 95% posterior probability that the passage is authentic, as based only on the fact that the text does actually have a difficulty once the passage is removed.

(2) The Passage Assumes Herod Antipas Controlled Macherus

Neil Godfrey notes another one of the reasons that Zindler gives for suspecting an interpolation here:

The passage about John the Baptist says Herod sent John to the castle of Macherus to be killed. Yet only two sentences before the Paragraph [1] summarized above, Josephus had written that the castle of Macherus did not belong to Herod, but to the king who soon afterwards attacked him.

This consideration would actually be probative, if what Josephus had written before had implied that the castle of Macherus did not belong to Herod. That is not, however, what the Greek manuscripts state; it is found only later in the printed editions.

F. F. Bruce, Andrew Criddle, and a previous post of mine on A Conjectural Corruption of Josephus reference what is actually found in the manuscripts of Josephus here: not “to Machaerus, which was at that time subject to her father” (εἰς τὸν Μαχαιροῦντα τότε πατρὶ αὐτῆς ὑποτελῆ) but rather “to Machaerus and to him who was subject to her father” (εἰς τὸν Μαχαιροῦντα τῷ τε πατρὶ αὐτῆς ὑποτελεῖ). More than a century ago, S. Sollertinsky made similar observations regarding this passage (“The Death of St. John the Baptist” in The Journal of Theological Studies, vol. 1, pp. 514-515):

But Ewald … has shown that the word [‘was subject’] refers not to Macherus but to the officer who met the daughter of Aretas there. Indeed Volkmar might have asked himself why the daughter of Aretas should request Herod’s permission to go to Machaerus, instead of to her father, if the fortress belonged to him: or how, in asking permission, she should conceal her intention of going to her father. The whole proceeding only becomes intelligible if it is the idea of an honourable retreat which Josephus means to ascribe to her.

Refer to the other post for more detail. This should be regarded as the reading of Josephus, so the argument that the John the Baptist passage contradicts an earlier statement of Josephus regarding Macherus does not hold up.

(3) The Passage’s Reference to God’s Punishment of Herod

Neil Godfrey notes another one of the reasons that Zindler gives for suspecting an interpolation here:

In the John the Baptist paragraph the author writes that the reason Herod’s army was defeated by Aretas was because God was punishing him for his unjust treatment of John.

But nope, that’s not the view of Josephus elsewhere. A few paragraphs later (18.7.2) Josephus writes:

And thus did God punish Herodias for her envy at her brother, and Herod also for giving ear to the vain discourses of a woman.

It’s worthwhile to make a larger quotation of this passage here (Antiquities 18.240-255):

1. BUT Herodias, Agrippa’s sister, who now lived as wife to that Herod who was tetrarch of Galilee and Peres, took this authority of her brother in an envious manner, particularly when she saw that he had a greater dignity bestowed on him than her husband had; since, when he ran away, it was because he was not able to pay his debts; and now he was come back, he was in a way of dignity, and of great good fortune. She was therefore grieved and much displeased at so great a mutation of his affairs; and chiefly when she saw him marching among the multitude with the usual ensigns of royal authority, she was not able to conceal how miserable she was, by reason of the envy she had towards him; but she excited her husband, and desired him that he would sail to Rome, to court honors equal to his; for she said that she could not bear to live any longer, while Agrippa, the son of that Aristobulus who was condemned to die by his father, one that came to her husband in such extreme poverty, that the necessaries of life were forced to be entirely supplied him day by day; and when he fled away from his creditors by sea, he now returned a king; while he was himself the son of a king, and while the near relation he bare to royal authority called upon him to gain the like dignity, he sat still, and was contented with a privater life. “But then, Herod, although thou wast formerly not concerned to be in a lower condition than thy father from whom thou wast derived had been, yet do thou now seek after the dignity which thy kinsman hath attained to; and do not thou bear this contempt, that a man who admired thy riches should he in greater honor than thyself, nor suffer his poverty to show itself able to purchase greater things than our abundance; nor do thou esteem it other than a shameful thing to be inferior to one who, the other day, lived upon thy charity. But let us go to Rome, and let us spare no pains nor expenses, either of silver or gold, since they cannot be kept for any better use than for the obtaining of a kingdom.”

2. But for Herod, he opposed her request at this time, out of the love of ease, and having a suspicion of the trouble he should have at Rome; so he tried to instruct her better. But the more she saw him draw back, the more she pressed him to it, and desired him to leave no stone unturned in order to be king; and at last she left not off till she engaged him, whether he would or not, to be of her sentiments, because he could no otherwise avoid her importunity. So he got all things ready, after as sumptuous a manner as he was able, and spared for nothing, and went up to Rome, and took Herodias along with him. But Agrippa, when he was made sensible of their intentions and preparations, he also prepared to go thither; and as soon as he heard they set sail, he sent Fortunatus, one of his freed-men, to Rome, to carry presents to the emperor, and letters against Herod, and to give Caius a particular account of those matters, if he should have any opportunity. This man followed Herod so quick, and had so prosperous a voyage, and came so little after Herod, that while Herod was with Caius, he came himself, and delivered his letters; for they both sailed to Dicearchia, and found Caius at Bairn, which is itself a little city of Campania, at the distance of about five furlongs from Dicearchia. There are in that place royal palaces, with sumptuous apartments, every emperor still endeavoring to outdo his predecessor’s magnificence; the place ,also affords warm baths, that spring out of the ground of their own accord, which are of advantage for the recovery of the health of those that make use of them; and, besides, they minister to men’s luxury also. Now Caius saluted Herod, for he first met with him, and then looked upon the letters which Agrippa had sent him, and which were written in order to accuse Herod; wherein he accused him, that he had been in confederacy with Sejanus against Tiberius’s and that he was now confederate with Artabanus, the king of Parthia, in opposition to the government of Caius; as a demonstration of which he alleged, that he had armor sufficient for seventy thousand men ready in his armory. Caius was moved at this information, and asked Herod whether what was said about the armor was true; and when he confessed there was such armor there, for he could not deny the same, the truth of it being too notorious, Caius took that to be a sufficient proof of the accusation, that he intended to revolt. So he took away from him his tetrarchy, and gave it by way of addition to Agrippa’s kingdom; he also gave Herod’s money to Agrippa, and, by way of punishment, awarded him a perpetual banishment, and appointed Lyons, a city of Gaul, to be his place of habitation. But when he was informed that Herodias was Agrippa’s sister, he made her a present of what money was her own, and told her that it was her brother who prevented her being put under the same calamity with her husband. But she made this reply: “Thou, indeed, O emperor! actest after a magnificent manner, and as becomes thyself in what thou offerest me; but the kindness which I have for my husband hinders me from partaking of the favor of thy gift; for it is not just that I, who have been made a partner in his prosperity, should forsake him in his misfortunes.” Hereupon Caius was angry at her, and sent her with Herod into banishment, and gave her estate to Agrippa. And thus did God punish Herodias for her envy at her brother, and Herod also for giving ear to the vain discourses of a woman.

Review again the statements found in Antiquities 18.5.2.

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; … 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. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him.

The components here are: (a) the destruction of Herod Antipas’ army, (b) as God’s punishment, in the understanding of (some of) the Jews, (c) for what Herod did to John.

And then compare with the statements found in the later passage:

Herodias, Agrippa’s sister, who now lived as wife to that Herod who was tetrarch of Galilee and Peres, took this authority of her brother in an envious manner … was not able to conceal how miserable she was, by reason of the envy she had towards him; but she excited her husband, and desired him that he would sail to Rome, to court honors equal to his … But for Herod, he opposed her request … having a suspicion of the trouble he should have at Rome … But the more she saw him draw back, the more she pressed him to it, and desired him to leave no stone unturned in order to be king … So he got all things ready … and went up to Rome, and took Herodias along with him. But Agrippa … sent … letters against Herod … Caius was moved at this information, and asked Herod whether what was said about the armor was true … Caius took that to be a sufficient proof of the accusation, that he intended to revolt. So he took away from him his tetrarchy, and gave it by way of addition to Agrippa’s kingdom; he also gave Herod’s money to Agrippa, and, by way of punishment, awarded him a perpetual banishment, and appointed Lyons, a city of Gaul, to be his place of habitation. But when he was informed that Herodias was Agrippa’s sister, he made her a present of what money was her own, … But she made this reply … Hereupon Caius was angry at her, and sent her with Herod into banishment, and gave her estate to Agrippa. And thus did God punish Herodias for her envy at her brother, and Herod also for giving ear to the vain discourses of a woman.

The components here are: (a) the exile of Herod Antipas and his wife, (b) as God’s punishment, in the understanding of Josephus, (c) for the envy of Herodias at her brother Agrippas and for Herod Antipas listening to her vain words.

These are entirely different episodes, at different times, with different putative causes, and with different results. It is no difficulty to suppose that Josephus could have said both things. It is not as though Herod Antipas could be visited with God’s punishment only one time and for only one reason in the mind of Josephus. That is, the argument has no value even if we do conflate the opinion of “the Jews” with the personal opinion of Josephus in the Baptist passage. This argument might have some force, if the other passage were speaking of the cause being found for the destruction of Herod Antipas’ army as a punishment from God (instead of the cause being found for the banishment of Herod Antipas and his wife as a punishment from God).

(4) No Mention of John the Baptist in the Jewish War

Neil Godfrey notes another one of the reasons that Zindler gives for suspecting an interpolation here:

Josephus makes no mention of John the Baptist when discussing Herod in his other book, The Wars of the Jews.

Once again we can attempt to weigh the strength of the probity of this argument in Bayesian terms.

One possible reference class here (peripheral figures in first century Judea) would be similar to what we looked at above. This list shows 8 out of 14 figures that are mentioned in the Antiquities also being mentioned in the War. What estimate should we use for figures that are mentioned in the Antiquities in an interpolation? It’s hard to say, but we could give a generous guesstimate that there is a mere 1 in 10 chance that they would also appear in the Jewish War (whether because of another interpolation or because of something mentioned in the War that was omitted in the Antiquities, which does happen often enough).

Based on this information, we can analyze this argument in Bayesian terms, supposing equal priors, in order to determine the strength of the cogency of this argument.

Bayes’ Theorem for Hypotheses that are Logical Complements (source: Wikipedia)

Let A be the hypothesis of authenticity and let B be the idea of “not appearing in the War.” If assigning equal priors, P(A) = 0.5, P(¬A) = 0.5. From the data noted above, P(B|A) = 6/14 = 0.43 and P(B|¬A) = 9/10 = 0.9. Applying Bayes’ Theorem, P(A|B) = (0.43 * 0.5) / (0.43 * 0.5 + 0.9 * 0.5) = 10 / 31 = 0.3226. That’s an adjustment of probability from 50% to 32% only (using equal priors), which may or may not be significant in the larger scheme of things. As a criterion for authenticity, this would have a 43% failure rate, if applied to the other passages, which are generally regarded as authentic.

Suppose that we considered this to be an unfair comparison, because of the wide range of dates during which these characters were active, or in any case to be an invalid comparison, because it is highly selective and considers data outside of book 18 of the Antiquities. We could do a similar test, this time looking only at the data of book 18 itself. There are some statistics mentioned in a previous blog post regarding The Greek Table of Contents to Antiquities 18. There the appearance or non-appearance of sections in the Antiquities with parallel material in the War was noted. Of 379 sections in book 18 of the Antiquities, 146 out of 379 were paralleled in the War, while 233 out of 379 were not. We should subtract out the six sections on Jesus and John to arrive at 227 out of 373 sections that are not paralleled in the War and 146 out of 373 that are.

Based on this information, we can perform a similar analysis, this time from the data of which sections of book 18 of the Antiquities were or were not paralleled in the War. Only 39% of the sections of Antiquities 18 are paralleled in the War. We can continue to use the stipulation of a 10% chance that a passage interpolated into the Antiquities were paralleled in the War.

Let A once again be the hypothesis of authenticity and let B be the idea of “not appearing in the War.” If assigning equal priors, P(A) = 0.5, P(¬A) = 0.5. From the data noted above, P(B|A) = 227/373 = 0.6086 and P(B|¬A) = 9/10 = 0.9. Applying Bayes’ Theorem, P(A|B) = (0.6086 * 0.5) / (0.6086 * 0.5 + 0.9 * 0.5) = 0.4034. That’s an adjustment of probability from 50% to 40.3% only (using equal priors), which is basically insignificant in the larger scheme of things. As a criterion for authenticity, this would have a 61% failure rate, if applied to the other sections of book 18, which are generally regarded as authentic.

(5) No Mention of John the Baptist in the Greek Table of Contents

Neil Godfrey notes another one of the reasons that Zindler gives for suspecting an interpolation here:

John the Baptist is not mentioned in the early Greek table of contents to the Antiquities of Josephus, but he is found in the later Latin version.

Once again we can attempt to weigh the strength of the probity of this argument in Bayesian terms. The post with data regarding The Greek Table of Contents to Antiquities 18 is again relevant. There we see that 163 out of 379 sections of Antiquities book 18 are not mentioned at all in the table of contents, leaving 216 out of 379 sections that are. We should again subtract out the six controversial sections on Jesus and John. We arrive at 157 out of 373 sections that are not referenced by the table of contents (42%) and 216 out of 373 sections that are (58%).

Once again we can assign a generous guesstimate of a 10% chance that an interpolated passage would be referenced in the Greek table of contents (whether because the table of contents were interpolated or because it were compiled later, after the passage were interpolated). Based on this information, we can analyze this argument in Bayesian terms, supposing equal priors, in order to determine the strength of the cogency of this argument.

Bayes’ Theorem for Hypotheses that are Logical Complements (source: Wikipedia)

Let A be the hypothesis of authenticity and let B be the idea of “not appearing in the table of contents.” If assigning equal priors, P(A) = 0.5, P(¬A) = 0.5. From the data noted above, P(B|A) = 157/373 = 0.421 and P(B|¬A) = 9/10 = 0.9. Applying Bayes’ Theorem, P(A|B) = (0.421 * 0.5) / (0.421 * 0.5 + 0.9 * 0.5) = 0.3187. That’s an adjustment of probability from 50% to 32% only (using equal priors), which may or may not be significant in the larger scheme of things. As a criterion for authenticity, this would have a 42% failure rate, if applied to the other passages, which are generally regarded as authentic.

Someone might ask whether the fourth and fifth arguments are much stronger when considered together. For example, someone might reason that the first argument went from 50-50 chances to 40-60 chances, while the second argument went from 50-50 chances to 32-68 chances, so you could combine the two by using the result of the first as the priors for the second. If one went this road, one would assign P(A) =0.4, P(¬A) = 0.6, P(B|A) = 0.421, and P(B|¬A) = 0.9. And one would arrive at P(A|B) = (0.421 * 0.4) / (0.421 * 0.4 + 0.9 * 0.6) = 0.1684 / 0.7084 = 0.2377 in this way. But this is, strictly speaking, incorrect. The reason that it is not correct is that “not appearing in the War” and “not appearing in the table of contents” are not “independent,” mathematically speaking. Yet combining probabilities in this way assumes that they are.

Fortunately we are in luck, because we have the data that would allow us to avoid this issue entirely. We can combine arguments (4) and (5) directly, by letting B represent the idea of “not appearing in the table of contents and not appearing in the War.” We can then revisit this table.

Sections of Antiquities Mentioned in the Table Sections of Antiquities Not Mentioned in the Table
Also Mentioned in the War 105 41
Not Also Mentioned in the War 111 122


Once again we should remove the controversial passages on Jesus and John from consideration. We are left with the fact that 116 sections out of 373 (i.e., 31.1% of all sections of book 18) are lacking both any parallel in the War and any reference in the table of contents.

Once again we need an estimate of how likely an interpolation would be to also satisfy B (not appearing in the table of contents and not appearing in the War), which can’t be considered 100% likely. We do so by guesstimating ¬B (appearing in the table of contents or appearing in the War or both), which, if we were correct in our previous guesstimates, must be somewhere between 0.1 and 0.2 (mathematically speaking). Let’s split the difference and say 0.15. This implies that there is an 85% guesstimated likelihood that an interpolation would be absent from both.

So, we are using equal priors and a new definition of “B” whereby it references the datum that the passage is omitted by both the War and the table of contents. This means that P(A) = 0.5, P(¬A) = 0.5, P(B|A) = 116/373 = 0.311 and P(B|¬A) = 0.85. Here’s Bayes’ Theorem again.

Bayes’ Theorem for Hypotheses that are Logical Complements (source: Wikipedia)

We get P(A|B) = ( 0.311 * 0.5 ) / ( 0.311 * 0.5 + 0.85 * 0.5 ) = 0.311 / 1.161 = 0.2679. That’s an adjustment of probability from 50% to 27% only (using equal priors), which may or may not be significant in the larger scheme of things. As a criterion for authenticity, this would have a 31% failure rate, if applied to the other passages, which are generally regarded as authentic.

All of this analysis has not even invoked any kind of “special pleading” (a fallacy only when done without justification) for why the John the Baptist passage would have been omitted either from the table of contents or from the War, despite the fact that such an argument may have some cogency. Certain types of stories may just be less likely to be registered by Josephus across both books, or by the compiler of the table of contents, and the story of John the Baptist might belong to such a type. If so, then the strength of the argument to inauthenticity from the fact that the passage is omitted from the War and from the table of contents would be weakened.

It will be acknowledged that the fourth and fifth arguments for inauthenticity here are not completely devoid of value, but such limited value as they have must be weighed against the value of the arguments for the authenticity of the passage regarding John the Baptist.

(6) Josephus Had Better Things to Write About

This argument is considered by Robert Webb (John the Baptizer and Prophet, p. 39):

First of all, it could be objected that Josephus had more important concerns and events about which to write than a minor Jewish figure such as John. But, because John was a person of Christian interest, it would be quite natural for Christian scribes to interpolate a reference to him. However, such an objection misunderstands both Josephus and John. Josephus’ history was specifically focused on his own people, the Jews, and attempted to present them as an ancient and honourable people. As a Jew, John had evidently been a well-known figure, and he could have been known by Josephus and used by him to promote his purposes. We have seen in our survey that this text concerning John fits the context admirably and is consistent with the larger themes Josephus was developing. A reference to John by Josephus would, therefore, be most natural.

Besides, we have seen that Josephus concerned himself, tangentially, with many minor Jewish figures in his twenty book Antiquities of the Jews.

(7) The Passage Contains Hapax Legomena

Another argument is considered by Robert Webb (John the Baptizer and Prophet, p. 39):

A second argument is that the nouns used for ‘baptism’ in this text (βαπτισμός and βάπτισις, Ant. 18.117) are not found elsewhere in the Josephan corpus, which may suggest that this vocabulary is foreign to Josephus and is evidence of interpolation. However, we may object that using a word only once does not mean it is foreign to an author. Josephus uses many words only once; this hardly means that each of the texts in which they appear is interpolated. As well, Josephus is knowledgeable concerning the βαπτ– word group, for he uses the verbs βαπτίζω 13 times and βαπτω three times. He uses no other nouns for ‘baptism’ other than those used here, which is quite strange if this text is a Christian interpolation. He never uses the noun βάπτισμα, which is the usual Christian noun for baptism (both John’s baptism and Christian baptism), and we would expect that term here if the text was a Christian interpolation. Therefore, the use of this vocabulary is hardly evidence for Christian interpolation.

It may be suggested that the occurrence of these hapax arose naturally from the subject matter, John who was called the Baptist.

It can also be noted that every author has hapax legomena; it is indeed the “mode” of the distribution of word frequency. For a typical author, more words are used just one time by that author than any other specific number of times. The Wikipedia entry on the subject states (citing Paul Baker and a paper by András Kornai):

Hapax legomena are quite common, as predicted by Zipf’s law, which states that the frequency of any word in a body of writing under study (corpus) is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table. For large corpora, about 40% to 60% of the words (counting by type) are hapax legomena, and another 10% to 15% are dis legomena.

It might even be slightly surprising if there were no hapax legomena in this 163-word passage.

(8) The Passage Regards John Positively

A third argument is considered by Robert Webb (John the Baptizer and Prophet, p. 40):

Emil Schürer raises the objection that ‘suspicion is aroused by the favourable verdict on John. . .’ But he responds to his own objection by stating that ‘it should be borne in mind that as an ascetic and moral preacher, he might have been viewed sympathetically by Josephus’. If Josephus had portrayed John, incorporating eschatological and messianic elements such as are utilized by the Gospels, then a negative verdict by Josephus would be expected. But, since Josephus portrays John in terms quite acceptable to his Greco-Roman audience, his favourable verdict is not out of line.

This is so. While the passage regards John positively, the nature of the passage cannot be reduced to simplistic binary terms. It is well worth asking the way in which the passage regards John positively. By asking that question, we find that the manner in which John is regarded positively is understandable coming from Josephus.

It is, of course, plausible that both Josephus and the Christians would have had a positive general opinion regarding John the Baptist. Josephus does not mention peripheral figures such as John only to denigrate them; his positive opinion of Honi the Circle-Drawer (Antiquities 14.19-28) affords an adequate parallel, an example of someone like John that Josephus could regard highly. We might have an even closer parallel in Banus, who is described in terms not unlike those describing John in the Gospels, who Josephus regarded well enough to follow for three years (from his Life).

And when I was about sixteen years old, I had a mind to make trim of the several sects that were among us. These sects are three: – The first is that of the Pharisees, the second that Sadducees, and the third that of the Essenes, as we have frequently told you; for I thought that by this means I might choose the best, if I were once acquainted with them all; so I contented myself with hard fare, and underwent great difficulties, and went through them all. Nor did I content myself with these trials only; but when I was informed that one, whose name was Banus, lived in the desert, and used no other clothing than grew upon trees, and had no other food than what grew of its own accord, and bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day, in order to preserve his chastity, I imitated him in those things, and continued with him three years. So when I had accomplished my desires, I returned back to the city, being now nineteen years old, and began to conduct myself according to the rules of the sect of the Pharisees, which is of kin to the sect of the Stoics, as the Greeks call them.

There are very apparent differences (notably, that Banus appears to be a vegetarian, and obviously, that Banus didn’t ‘baptize’ others), but the parallels between the brief description of Banus by Josephus and the brief description of John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark are close enough to imagine that they may have belonged to the same general circles or had the same general background. Every statement in Josephus’ brief account is paralleled by a similar statement in Mark’s brief account, but we should not suppose that either read the other, suggesting that this general sort of person (an Essene?) were known for this general sort of thing. Banus “lived in the desert” (cf. Mark 1:4, “in the wilderness”), “used no other clothing than grew upon trees” (cf. Mark 1:6, “clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist”), “had no other food than what grew of its own accord” (cf. Mark 1:6, “his diet was locusts and wild honey”), and “bathed himself in cold water frequently, both by night and by day, in order to preserve his chastity” (cf. Mark 1:5, “they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins”).

As it is apparent that the memory of John the Baptist doesn’t seem too much unlike that of this Banus, the Essene to whom Josephus attached himself for three years, it should not be surprising if Josephus would react positively to John the Baptist, who is so much like his old master. (This is true whether or not we suppose that John himself may have been an Essene.)

Israel Abrahams argues similarly (Studies in Pharisaism and the Gospels, p. 30): “Josephus gives a favourable account of John and his work. This is a priori what we should expect, for John has decidedly Essenic leanings and the Essenes were favourites with the Jewish historian.”

And this is not the only reason that Josephus might have regarded John the Baptist positively. A virtuous John the Baptist provides an appropriate foil to his real subject in this part of the Antiquities, the one who had John the Baptist killed, Herod Antipas. Sollertinsky makes this note regarding Josephus’ attitude to Herod Antipas (“The Death of St. John the Baptist” in The Journal of Theological Studies, vol. 1, p. 509).

And when we come to the consideration of events in which the person of Antipas is concerned, we are bound to consider the historian’s statements with the greatest care. He regards Antipas as the rival of Agrippa; and all his sympathies were with the latter, whose conduct he always represents in the most favorable light possible. [e.g. on the death of Gaius, Agrippa advised Claudius to assume the imperial power. To the Senate he expressed his readiness to lay down his life in carrying their wishes into effect, and yet immediately afterwards informed Claudius of the disorder in the Senate, and recommended him to oppose their wishes. This inconsistent conduct the historian approves. Ant. xix. 4. 1.] Even when Antipas was driven into exile, undoubtedly through the intrigues of Agrippa, Josephus represents the former as punished by God on account of the latter. [Ant. xviii. 7.2.]

The passage clearly doesn’t envision any actual rebellion on the part of John the Baptist but depicts him as a preacher of a moral philosophy who became popular with the people, which popularity translated into a threat only in the suspicious mind of Herod Antipas. All considered, it should not surprise us that John the Baptist might be well-regarded by Josephus, especially in the way phrased here at Ant. 18.116-119.

(9) The Epithet “the Baptist” 

Neil Godfrey mentions another argument:

“The Baptist” as an epithet of John was distinctive among Christian sources. It appears as a name in first-century CE Greek only in the synoptic Gospels. The usual reply to this question is that “John the Baptist” was how he was known generally and to all from his own time. But if so, we have the problem that he is not known by that name in either the Acts of the Apostles nor in the Gospel of John.

Why did Josephus use this term, especially addressing Greek and Roman audiences, and leave it unexplained?

The explanation of the term is obvious. John was “called the Baptist” because he performed “baptism.” This connection is as obvious in the Greek as it is in the English today, which is why no Gentile today wonders about the meaning of the term “Baptist.” (It is particular to John and doesn’t really denote anything special in Judaism, in any case. It is quite unlike the term “Christ,” where the argument has real validity.)

Godfrey also wonders why the phrase is absent in Acts and John. We could wonder as well. The author of the Acts of the Apostles almost certainly knows the Synoptic Gospels. The same certainty doesn’t obtain for the Gospel of John, but denying John’s knowledge of the Synoptics would be difficult, at least, for anyone who believes that the Gospel of Mark were the first real account of the crucifixion of Jesus by Pilate, an opinion often offered in some parts. The point being, these particular authors could manage to reference John while consciously omitting to use the phrase “the Baptist” in connection with him. We can wonder why, but that doesn’t mean it is anything more than a decision that the authors made.

(10) Parallel Opening and Closing Sentences

After making some comments regarding the idea of baptism found in the passage, a point more fully elaborated by Rivka Nir (and discussed below), the discussion from Robert Price continues (The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, pp. 103-104):

My second reason for seeing it as an interpolation is the apparent presence of a redactional seam, a telltale sign of a copyist stitching in new material. Often an interpolation may be detected by parallel opening and closing sentences. This results from the copyist having to re-create the peg from which the continuation of the original narrative first hung. In this case, the passage begins with the words, “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.” I am suggesting that this passage is the interpolator’s paraphrase of the closing words of the passage: “Now, the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, as a mark of God’s displeasure against him.” The latter version would have been the original, speaking of Herod’s general impiety, the former being the paraphrase that introduces John the Baptist by name, making the military defeat the punishment for John’s ill treatment. So it may be that Josephus did not originally mention John at all.

Maurice Casey replies to this argument directly, in these words (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 36):

Price further suggests that there is a ‘redactional seam, a telltale sign of a copyist stitching in new material’. His only reason for this is that the opening of Josephus’ account says that the destruction of Herod Antipas’ army in 36 CE by the Nabatean king Aretas was interpreted by some Jews as God’s punishment of Herod for putting John to death, and Josephus repeats this at the end of the passage, before passing to his account of Vitellius’ abortive preparations for a Roman attack on Aretas and his successful visit to Jerusalem with Herod Antipas. Price’s conjecture is no more than arbitrary invention, caused by what Price does not wish to believe. Josephus’ passage makes perfect sense as all his own work, and the passage about John fits perfectly where it is.

It may be asked whether the presence of “parallel opening and closing sentences” is a characteristic of interpolated passages, whether it is a characteristic of non-interpolated passages, and to what degree in each case.

It is difficult to establish a baseline for what is typical of interpolations of considerable yet modest length (more than a few words but short of a major rewrite), because there are so few that are universally recognized by scholarship, and those that are frequently recognized (as moderately-sized interpolations) belong to various different texts and have various motivations. Nevertheless, we can try. Let’s just limit ourselves to interpolations that occur in the middle of a text and take up at least a dozen words (and more than one NT verse).

In Josephus, there is Ant. 18.63-64. Although controversial, it is less controversial among those considering the argument that the John the Baptist passage were interpolated. In the Gospels, the Longer Ending of Mark is excluded because it does not “interpolate” so much as append. The Pericope de Adultera (John 7:53-8:11) clearly qualifies. John 5:3b-4 makes the cut, barely. The agony in the garden (Luke 22:43-44) seems to qualify, although it is relatively short. In Paul, the passages found at 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 qualify in the opinion of many scholars, although they are much shorter than the passage on John the Baptist. In the other letters, the Comma Johannem (1 John 5:7-8) qualifies, although it is also relatively short. Let’s take stock of these passages and look for any other examples of the “telltale sign” mentioned.

Antiquities 18.63-64. (“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man … and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.) Not attested here.

John 7:53-8:11. (“Then each of them went home, while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. … And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’”) Not attested here.

John 5:3b-4. (“…waiting for the moving of the waters; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.”) Not attested here.

Luke 22:43-44. (“And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down upon the ground.”) Not attested here.

1 Corinthians 14:34-35. (“Let the women keep silence in the churches: because it is not permitted for them to speak; but let them be in subjection, as also the law says. And if they would learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home: for it is shameful for a woman to speak in the church.”) A parallel opening and closing be detected here, but it would contradict Price’s explanation of the phenomenon, as something that “results from the copyist having to re-create the peg from which the continuation of the original narrative first hung.” The parallel statement forms part of the interpolation (and a part of the argument for an interpolation), due to the perceived contradiction with the guidelines for women speaking in church in 1 Corinthians 11.

1 Thessalonians 2:14-16. (“You have fared like the congregations in Judea, God’s people in Christ Jesus. You have been treated by your countrymen as they are treated by the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out, the Jews who are heedless of God’s will and enemies of their fellow-men, hindering us from speaking to the gentiles to lead them to salvation. All this time they have been making up the full measure of their guilt, and now retribution has overtaken them for good and all.”) Not attested here.

1 John 5:7-8. (“For there are three that bear record [in heaven the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth], the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”) Here the phenomenon that Price describes is found exactly, and it is easy to imagine that this is the celebrated example of interpolation that originally motivated Price’s statement.

But it’s actually questionable whether the passage in Ant. 18.116-119 is a good parallel in the first place for the passage found at 1 John 5:7-8. At 1 John 5:7-8, it is necessary to “re-create the peg,” just as Price says, in order to maintain the sense of the original text. Here the original “there are three that bear record” has been rephrased as “there are three that bear record in heaven” and then repeated with modification at the end as “there are three that bear witness in earth.” This sets up the continuation of the sentence precisely, so it needs to be repeated. However, in the John the Baptist passage, there isn’t actually any great need for the first part at Ant. 18.116 to be repeated again at Ant. 18.119. The continuation of the text would be sensible either way.

It is, of course, also worth mentioning the fact that parallel structures occur in writing all the time, without any suspicion of interpolation cropping up on such account. There is, of course, the celebrated concept of the ‘chiasmus‘, and there is also the broad concept of the ‘inclusio‘. Accordingly John P. Meier can mention the very same fact that Robert Price does, concerning the parallel opening and closing sentences, and situate it in the context of Josephus’ narrative aims (“John the Baptist in Josephus: Philology and Exegesis,” in Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 111, No. 2, pp. 228-229).

As with the study of NT texts, the first step in any analysis, after basic text criticism, is the delimitation of the literary unit. Josephus seems to have been at pains to make clear the beginning and the end of the Baptist passage, perhaps because it was for him a minor parenthesis in the much larger story of Herod Antipas, Agrippa I, and other Herodians. Hence Josephus clearly “packages” his aside about the Baptist with an inclusio: certain key words and key themes occur in a cluster at the very beginning (§116 and the first words of §117) and the very end (§119) of the passage. … Thus, with the same or similar words, grouped in roughly the same order, Josephus reiterates the theme that (some) Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army by the Nabatean king Aretas IV was God’s just punishment inflicted on Herod Antipas to avenge his killing of John the Baptist.

While Robert Price’s suggested solution is clever and could obviate the fifteenth argument for authenticity presented above, it would not escape the criticism of most of the arguments for authenticity. It is also not without its own difficulties. It might be regarded as a somewhat odd coincidence that the text of Josephus should already say exactly what the interpolator wanted to say here, just without the reference to the specific misdeed that the interpolator had in mind (the execution of John the Baptist). Certainly it is not demanded by the notion of an interpolation here that the interpolator would fashion a mirror of what he found in Josephus into the introduction of his interpolation (as we’ve seen from the observations proceeding). It is more parsimonious to suppose that the same person who phrased the introduction to this passage on John also phrased its conclusion.

(11) The Statements Regarding Baptism and Sin in the Passage

Price also introduces an argument along these lines (The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, p. 103):

First, the writer deems it a matter of disproportionate urgency to correct a sacramental interpretation of John’s baptism: he “commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness toward one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the remission of some sins, but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.” What is this doing in the present context? Why would Josephus care about such niceties any more than Gallio did (Acts 18:14-15)? It sounds like sectarian theological hair-splitting, more at home in a Baptist or Christian setting. John Meagher believes that it came from the former, that Josephus derived this information from the Baptist sect of his own day, which had spread out into the Hellenistic world (cf. Acts 19:1-7). These latter-day Baptists had begun to reflect on the nature of baptism, their hallmark ritual, and they had come to rationalize it … But I rather imagine Josephus would have edited out such extraneous information. I prefer to see the whole passage as an interpolation into Josephus by a Christian (or Baptist) who was trying to correct Mark by interpreting what he said about a “baptism for the forgiveness of sins” in a nonsacramental direction.

This argument has been criticized by Maurice Casey as well (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 35):

Price invents a mythical ‘Christian (or Baptist) who was trying to correct Mark by interpreting what he said about a “baptism for the forgiveness of sins” in a nonsacramental direction.’ But Mark actually reported that John was preaching ‘baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins’ (Mk 1.4//Lk. 3.3), when Jewish people believed that God invariably forgave repentant sinners. Mark also reports that people were baptized by John in the Jordan ‘confessing their sins’ (Mk 1.5//Mt 3.6). This is perfectly correct, as we shall see, and means that John’s baptism symbolized repentance, and that it was people’s repentance which enabled God to forgive their sins. This is not ‘sacramental’, as Christian baptism became.

Price did quote Mark a bit incorrectly, and Casey is probably correct that Mark’s account of John’s baptism is not, strtictly speaking, sacramental. Casey is also correct to point out that there is an emphasis on “repentance” in Mark in the phrases “of repentence” and in the statement that people were “confessing their sins.” Repentance, on the other hand, is not the same as righteousness. And having a clean soul and accepting “washing” for the purification of the body alone is quite distinct from having a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” where the difference is between ‘not sinning before washing’ and ‘repenting of sin during washing’. So there is certainly a difference between the description of John’s baptism in Mark and the description in the text of Josephus. Thus, there still does seem to be some room for believing that these two types of accounts (or the text of Antiquities 18.5.2 and another Christian account) might stand in deliberate opposition to each other.

Casey’s next criticism cuts a little deeper:

Moreover, writing this passage into Josephus to correct Mark is too bizarre and improbable a procedure for it to be plausible to suppose that this is a reason for an ‘interpolation’ into Josephus.

This points out a significant difficulty for the hypothesis that an interpolation into Josephus occurred as part of inter-nicene wrangling by Christians in the second century. Why Josephus? What effect is that supposed to have? Who among Christians (whether Jewish Christian or not) or even Baptists is supposed to have regarded Josephus highly enough to treat his writings as authoritative in matters of doctrine? Josephus’ own theological beliefs were suspect to them; after all, Josephus was not just a Jew but also a traitor and (for anyone who bothered to read him in the first place, that is) one who declared the messianic oracles to foretell Vespasian. Surely the better target for an interpolation would be a text actually regarded as authoritative for faith and doctrine.

This is consistent with the argument that Ant. 18.3.3 was interpolated, because there the motivation was apologetic, providing a proof for the reproach of non-believers, not to settle precise doctrinal disputes. On the other hand, it is possible that an interpolation of the John the Baptist passage with apologetic motives (presumably the only real fit here) would incidentally betray a little of the author’s own opinion, in distinction to other Christians. So perhaps this criticism by Casey isn’t completely sound, so long as this feature is taken only as an indication of interpolation and not necessarily the “reason” for it.

Casey goes on to speculate that, if the passage is conceived as a response to the most-typical Christian doctrine regarding baptism, that may be simply because Josephus had heard a little bit about Christians and wanted to make sure that his mention of “baptism” did not sound similar to the Christian rite.

It is however entirely reasonable to suppose that the Jewish author Josephus had heard of Christians being baptized ‘in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins’ (Acts 2.38), and perhaps even being ‘baptised into Christ Jesus’ (Rom. 6.3). He therefore made sure that John’s baptism was interpreted within its original Jewish frame of reference, as Mark had done in a slightly different way.

While not certain, that is plausible, and it would rob the argument for seeing a specifically-Christian doctrine in view here of any real strength as an argument for inauthenticity as a part of Josephus’ text.

Now we come to the argument for inauthenticity that Rivka Nir makes the focus of her article, “Josephus’ Account of John the Baptist: A Christian Interpolation?” While the article is commendable for its exploration of the concept of baptism in antiquity, it suffers from the same types of criticism when it comes to making the leap from there to an argument that the passage were not from Josephus. Rivka Nir makes some concluding remarks:

In refuting baptism for remission of sins and commending baptism for purication of the body, on condition that the soul was already cleansed by righteousness, the author may actually be arguing against the sacramental orthodox Christian baptism. Conceived as ‘baptism for repentance’ and forgiveness of sins, it rejected any connection to physical purification.

The Josephus account of John the Baptist may reflect an intra-Christian dispute concurrent with the formation of the Christian rite of baptism during the first centuries CE. The dispute centred on the following questions: Should Christian baptism itself bring about forgiveness of sins, or is purification of the soul from its sins effected by the spiritual and moral purification that precedes baptism? Should Christian baptism maintain the link to Jewish immersion and include purification of the body as one of its components? Within the Jewish-Christian sects to which the writer of the passage apparently belonged, the connection with Jewish immersions persevered in the emphasis on use of baptism for bodily purification. However, along with this outer bodily purification these groups also assigned a role to inner purification, which found its expression in prior commitment to a righteous way of life as prerequisite for the efficacy of bodily immersion. Assuming the form of a collective mass baptism, it functioned as initiation rite into a select group and its unifying mark, and replaced the sacrificial temple cult as expedient to remission of sins. This sort of immersion, as I have pointed out, emerged amid groups at the margins of Second Temple Judaism, such as the Qumran sect. Significantly, then, it was these groups that provided the ritual model on which this type of Jewish-Christian immersion was developed.

A short conclusion follows, which appears to be a little forced and reminds me of one of my own published articles, where I dashed off a non sequitur of a hurried conclusion (albeit one that is probably expected by the reader after all that work) after making a more-tightly-argued case in the body.

Rivka Nir’s argument, then, if it is boiled down to the basics, runs something like this:

(a) Groups at the margin of Second Temple Judaism, such as the Qumran sect, had beliefs regarding “inner purification,” a “prior commitment to a righteous way of life,” as a “prerequisite for the efficacy of bodily immersion.”
(b) Jewish-Christian sects had similar beliefs regarding “inner purification,” a “prior commitment to a righteous way of life,” as a “prerequisite for the efficacy of bodily immersion.” (The point is also made that it can be considered an alternative to the function of the Temple cult.)
(c) Other Christian sects held that “Christian baptism itself bring[s] about forgiveness of sins.”
(d) Accordingly, the “Josephus account of John the Baptist may reflect an intra-Christian dispute concurrent with the formation of the Christian rite of baptism during the first centuries CE.” (emphasis added)
(e) “Josephus, as is well known, remained a faithful Jew. He was neither initiated into one of the Jewish-Christian sects, nor did he convert to Christianity.”
(f) “Thus, the inevitable conclusion is that the description of John’s baptism, as provided in the passage under review, was not written by Josephus, but was rather interpolated or adapted by a Christian or Jewish-Christian hand.”

Everything is brilliant right up to the part starting, “Thus, the inevitable conclusion is.” I mean, yes, if you do believe that the passage were interpolated, and if you were trying to understand the interpolator, then you would probably have to believe that it were interpolated by a Jewish Christian who were making distinctions about baptism, which distinctions ran contrary to the more common Christian view. That’s all if, however. The real question for the debate over the authenticity of the passage is whether it may also be, just as easily, understood as something coming from the historian Josephus, making his own distinctions. If it may be this or may also be that, without any real advantage found in either explanation, then there is no sound argument to be found here.

James McGrath makes the points here that (1) John the Baptist’s practice may plausibly have been “marginal” (as opposed to mainstream) and (2) that nothing about the practice of baptism described in the Antiquities passage denotes the Jewish-Christian sects’ notion of washing (“b” above) rather than some Jewish groups’ notion of washing (“a” above), which do indeed seem to be highly similar and difficult to distinguish. It is, of course, Rivka Nir who draws attention to their similarities, so it is difficult to see how one could distinguish one from the other in the account of the Antiquities, without first knowing whether or not Josephus or a Christian wrote it.

But in response to some of her points, it is worth considering (1) that John need not have been addressing something “mainstream,” and there may not have even been a clear mainstream in this period; and (2) the Mandaeans seem to provide precisely what Nir sees here, a wider Baptist context to which John was responding. Nir also mentions that the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies (2.23) identify John as belonging to the Hemerobaptists – i.e., those who immerse daily.

The similarities with Jewish-Christian baptism can of course be explained very well in terms of Jewish Christianity’s debt to earlier Jewish immersion rituals. Nir further writes:

The author of our passage speaks of Johannine baptism in terms paralleling those used for expiation sacrifices in the temple cult, by means of which the person bringing the sacrifice asks God to accept it so that his sins may be forgiven.

The notion that baptism was a substitute for the Jewish sacrificial cult is manifestly Christian…

It seems on the contrary that Jewish sectarian groups, especially those that disapproved of the temple either on principle or as currently run, regularly substituted or supplemented temple sacrifice with other rituals.

The simplest explanation available for why Josephus might have written this way, then, is that Josephus might have had some historical information regarding John the Baptist, or about the followers of John the Baptist, and it were these Jewish persons (marginal though they may be) who made the distinctions about the baptism of John that they did, which Josephus dutifully reported. And sometimes the simplest explanations are indeed the best.

Whether or not Josephus had heard of this from reliable sources regarding John or about subsequent followers of John, there might also have been motivations for Josephus to make these distinctions. Casey had speculated that Josephus was distinguishing John’s Jewish rite from the superstitious practice of contemporary Christians, but that is not the only superstition that Josephus (ever eager to present Judaism as a respectable philosophy to his Hellenistic audience) might have wanted to distinguish John and his baptism from.

While we might wish for earlier evidence for the mystery religions (and while we might wish that a lot of things did not vanish in the sands of time), it is vanity to reject wholesale, without real reason, what evidence we do have that is, at least, contemporary with the actual practice of such mystery cults. Thus we can look to these quotations of Tertullian as offering evidence that Mithraists had rituals that involved a sort of baptism. And, specifically, Mithraists had a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

The devil [is the inspirer of the heretics] whose work it is to pervert the truth, who with idolatrous mysteries endeavors to imitate the realities of the divine sacraments. Some he himself sprinkles as though in token of faith and loyalty; he promises forgiveness of sins through baptism; and if my memory does not fail me marks his own soldiers with the sign of Mithra on their foreheads, commemorates an offering of bread, introduces a mock resurrection, and with the sword opens the way to the crown. Moreover has he not forbidden a second marriage to the supreme priest? He maintains also his virgins and his celibates.(Tertullian, De praescriptione haereticorum, 40:3-4)

There is another quote that is relevant here also.

Likewise [the Mithraists] honor the gods themselves by washings. Moreover, by carrying water around, and sprinkling it, they everywhere expiate country-seats, houses, temples, and whole cities: at all events, at the Apollinarian and Eleusinian games they are baptized; and they presume that the effect of their doing that is their regeneration and the remission of the penalties due to their perjuries. (Tertullian, De Baptismo, 5)

When we widen the lens just a little, to include a view of the actual audience of Josephus, which was Hellenistic, instead of keeping a strict focus on Judaism and Christianity, as Rivka Nir does, we can clearly see the fallacy of the idea: not Jewish, therefore Christian. Yes, it may be that the distinction Josephus was making was in opposition to an idea that was not Jewish. It is a fallacy of the excluded middle, however, to conclude on this basis that the distinction is being made in contrast to Christian ideas. There are many different beliefs that are not Jewish but also not Christian.

That Josephus had mystery religions and their beliefs regarding forgiveness of sins, just by being washed in certain rites, in view here, seems probable. It should be said, of course, that from the point of view of a first century Pharisee, there might not have been such a sharp demarcation between the followers of Mithras and the followers of Jesus Christ as there is for us today. So to say that Josephus had a mind to distinguish John’s baptism from that of the mystery religions doesn’t necessarily mean that Josephus didn’t think of Christians as well. We simply cannot say exactly which superstitions were in view for Josephus or, indeed, whether Josephus intended to lump them all into one when making this distinction about John’s practice of baptism.

In any case, it is not necessary to resort to a hypothesis that Josephus were not the author in order to understand the statements found in this passage of the Antiquities about ablutions, righteousness, and the forgiveness of sin. It is at home in a presentation made by Josephus to demonstrate the virtuous philosophical qualities of Judaism and of particular Jews, such as John the Baptist, that Josephus admired.

Summing Up

It turns out that quite a lot could be written about the authenticity of the passage on John the Baptist found in the Antiquities, and there are also some peculiarities of the passage that are frequently unaddressed and that might seem to speak to the passage’s inauthenticity. A thorough review of them, however, finds that these concerns about the authenticity of the passage can be not only addressed, but that the premises involved can frequently be shown to be flawed or just plain wrong. Most of the arguments for inauthenticity here don’t even move the needle because they are based on misunderstandings of the text of Josephus or of the historical context.

While there are some slight indications that may be said to favor inauthenticity, there are also many slight indications that may be said to favor authenticity. The argument is not decided, however, by such indecisive factors. A few of the arguments for authenticity (2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 13, 14, 15) stand out. References to them again:

(2) The Unlikelihood of an Interpolation on John Being Inserted First
(3) The Unlikelihood of a Christian Interpolation on John Saying Nothing of Jesus
(6) A Poor Chronological Fit with the Timeline of the Gospels
(7) The Reason for the Execution of John in Disagreement with the Gospels
(8) Political Contextualizing More Characteristic of Josephus
(13) The Word for “Sin” in the Passage Characteristic of Josephan Usage
(14) The Word for “Baptism” in the Passage Uncharacteristic of Christian Usage
(15) Ant. 18.120 Incongruous without Ant. 18.116-119 (and Appropriate As-Is)

The best argument for interpolation appears to be this one:

(11) The Statements Regarding Baptism and Sin in the Passage

But it does not seem to be better than the least of the just-mentioned arguments for authenticity, at least not in my estimation. The passage makes sense in its Josephan context and in its historical context, and the arguments against its authenticity do not hold up. Authorship by anyone other than Josephus (along with his assistants) or a Christian is exceedingly unlikely in any case. The passage has both many indicators against Christian authorship (including 2, 3, 6, 7, and 14 above) and a few indicators in favor of Josephan authorship (including 8, 13, and 15 above). Thus, it seems very likely that this passage on John the Baptist is authentic to the publication of the Antiquities by Josephus.



  7 Responses to “The Authenticity of John the Baptist in Josephus”

  1. Thank you for this very thorough treatment. I’m wondering if you consider your article on the Testimonium Flavianum to be your definitive word on that subject. I’ve been tilting back towards considering the partial authenticity position after reading Tim O’Neill’s critiques of mythicist arguments on his blog, as well as a response to Ken Olson by Christopher Price at Christian Cadre.

    • Thank you for this reply. I’ve been at work on updating some of the material found on the Testimonium Flavianum page (some of that work has been reflected in other recent posts on this blog). Certain parts of it absolutely do need to be revised, but I do not agree with either Tim O’Neill or Christopher Price regarding the Testimonium, in general terms. (Incidentally, I would suggest that the inauthenticity of the Ant. 18.3.3 passage is not really a ‘mythicist’ thing per se.) Thanks again for your comments.

  2. Right. I’m not saying the TF interpolation argument is necessarily mythicist. Just that O’Neill’s comments on the issue were baked into his contra-mythicism posts.

    Interestingly enough, Bernard Muller on his site reaches the conclusion that the full James passage in Ant. 20 is authentic while the TF is wholly inauthentic. He thinks it quite possible that Josephus would expect his readers to be aware of Christianity and thus understand the reference to a “Jesus who is called Christ” without having mentioned him beforehand.

    • The Testimonium article has been through three major recensions. In the original version, it defended a partial Testimonium along the same lines as John P. Meier’s presentation. When I came to regard the Testimonium as inauthentic, at first I took refuge in the same bunker in which Bernard Muller is hiding out. The article took on its current shape a few years later, when I realized how absurd (and apologetically-motivated) such a position was.

  3. The essay (see link below) compares all the passages in Josephus works that mention a trouble maker or sect leader.
    When compared to other passages in Josephus, the Testimonium Flavianum contains enough anomalies and deletions to suggest that it is a forgery: it was written by someone making a good but not great attempt to imitate Josephus style. The John the Baptist passage contains fewer anomalies, suggesting it was written by Josephus, but was altered.
    The bandit leader passages in the final books of “Antiquities” tend to be more verbose than the corresponding passages in “War” which might confirm Thackeray’s “two assistant” hypothesis.

    The direct link to the comparison table is here:

  4. In other John the Baptist traditions, the location of his death is either not named, or is implied to be Jerusalem.

    PseudoHegesippus, a Latin text based on Jewish War and Antiquities places Machaerus under Herod’s control, near the border of Judea and Aretus’ territories.

    “Machaerus” may have been a well meaning but mistaken scribal correction/interpolation into the phrase “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.” The previously referred to castle in the text of “Antiquities” is actually the Antonia in Jerusalem, which is specifically referred to as a castle in a preceding paragraph: “…. they were laid up in the tower of Antonia, the citadel so called ….”
    Macherus was not called a castle either in the text of “Antiquities”, where it is referred to as a “place/location lying between a boundary” (μεθόριος), or PseudoHeggesippus where it was called a town.

    “John the Baptist a holy man, who never placed the truth of salvation in second place,
    had been killed before the death of Jesus. ……. She indignant at her rival insinuated to her returning husband that he should go to the town Macherunta which was in the boundaries of king Petreus and Herod. He who suspected nothing, at the same time because he had impaired the whole state around the same, by which he could more easily keep the faith of the agreement to Herodias if he should get
    rid of his wife, agreed to her diversion. But she when he came near to her father’s kingdom
    revealed the things learned to her father Areta, who by an ambush attacked and completely
    destroyed in a battle the entire force of Herod, the betrayal having been made through those, who
    from the people of Philippus the tetrarch had associated themselves to Herod.”
    From PseudoHegesippus (

    1. And Herod, his brother, took his wife Herodias. 2. And because of her all the doctors of the Law abhorred him, but durst not accuse him before his face. 3. But only that one whom they called a wild man, came to him in anger and spake: “Why hast thou taken the wife of thy brother? 4. As thy brother hath died a death void of pity, thou too wilt be reaped off by the heavenly sickle. 5. God’s decree will not be silenced, but will destroy thee through evil affliction in foreign lands. 6. For thou dost not raise up seed for thy brother, but gratifiest thy fleshly lust and committest adultery, seeing that four children of him are alive.” 7. Now when Herod heard [this], he was filled with wrath and commanded that they should beat him and drive him away. 8. But he accused Herod incessantly wherever he found him, and right up to the time when he (H.) put him under arrest and gave orders to slay him.
    (From the Slavonic Josephus)

    “The scoundrel Yohanan, the chief of the rebels, joined him and was named Johannus because of the miracles (nissim) that Yeshuah had performed in his presence using the Ineffable Name.
    The guardsmen arrived but could not find them. They only captured Johannus, who they brought before the King. The king ordered that Johannus be put to death by the sword. They killed him and they hung his head in front of the gates of Jerusalem.”
    (From the Huldriech text of the Toledoth Yeschu)
    (excerpted with modifications from

    Also see:

  5. […] Peter Kirby deals with the authenticity of the reference to John the Baptist in Josephus’ text. […]

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