Dialoguing about John the Baptist: Josephus and the Evangelists (Pt. 4a)

Icon of John the Baptist; artist unknown.

Icon of John the Baptist; artist unknown.

Howard Pepper and I spent the first several posts in this series talking about Josephus' description of John the Baptist. In at least two of his entries he's observed the difference between Josephus' description and that of the Evangelists. For many, maybe Howard included (?), it is easy to see the difference between these two as an indictment against the Evangelists' truthfulness as if they are intentionally hiding something Josephus exposes. I see some problems with such an approach. (1) Josephus didn't interact with the Gospels, so his take is just different, not oppositional. (2) The Evangelists may not have known anything about Josephus' writings, save the author of Luke-Acts, and even then he seemed more concerned with Mark + Q (or + Matthew if you buy the arguments of scholars like Mark Goodacre and Francis Watson) as concerns the Baptist than Josephus. (3) Their agenda are just different. In The Relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth: A Critical Study (p. 49) Daniel S. Dappah categorizes Josephus' take as political and the Evangelists' as moral. Josephus tells the story for the singular purpose of explaining why people thought Antipas' defeat by Aretas IV was caused by God. The Evangelists want to show that Jesus is in line with John's agenda and they both stand against the immoral rulers of this world. Howard suggested that we can't know Josephus' agenda. I think Josephus' context gives us a hint, as does the Evangelists'.

This isn't to say that as a historian we should critically engage our sources. Each author has an agenda and the benefit of comparing Josephus and the Evangelists is that their differences help us better understand the agenda of each. If we didn't have Josephus we would miss an important political nuance behind the Gospels. If we didn't have the Gospels, almost no one would care about John the Baptist, at all.

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See also:

Pt. 1a (Brian)

Pt. 1b (Howard)

Pt. 2a (Brian)

Pt. 2b (Howard)

Pt. 3a (Brian)

Pt. 3b (Howard)