A couple of weeks ago Howard Pepper and I began a dialogue about John the Baptist via our blogs. In my inaugural post I chose to begin with Josephus' description of the Baptist in Antiquities 18.5.109-119. In Howard's response he highlighted the political tension caused by the crowds that had gather around the Baptist. According to Josephus it was the fear of what might happened if people listened to John that led Antipas to preemptively arrest and execute John. (Josephus' words in 118: "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 anything 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 should be too late.") Howard notes rightly that this is not a depiction emphasized in the Gospels. The Evangelists attribute the Baptist's execution to Herodias' ploy to rid herself of the prophetic voice that was calling her marriage to Antipas "illegal", but that is something we'll discuss at a later point.
Josephus describes the Baptist's preaching and activity this way (117): he "commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness." Why would that lead to an execution?
Robert Webb insightfully comments in his book John the Baptizer and Prophet: A Socio-historical Study (p. 37):
“To those who perceive themselves to be powerless and unjustly treated, John’s ethical demand could imply a radical change in the socio-political status quo, producing a society in which John’s ethical demand could be lived out: a society manifesting ‘justice toward one another.’ That same ethical demand would be perceived as a threat to the status quoof those who held power in the current imperialist regime. Furthermore, John’s message called his audience ‘to gather together by baptism,’ and the gathering together of discontented, excited people is usually perceived as a threat by governments (ancient as well as modern).”
In this sense, while it is true that Josephus' description of John makes him sound like a Greek moral philosopher there remains the subtle suggestion that he was a potential revolutionary as well. He was calling people together. He was demanding a more just society. I don't want to cover the same ground twice, so let me point readers in the direction of an article I wrote on this subject recently: The Proclamation of John the Baptist.
Howard asked one final question: "what numbers might we be talking about as to crowds or the total number of people baptized by John?" I don't know that we can answer that. Both the Synoptic Evangelists and Josephus make it sound like the crowds were large. The Evangelist have people coming from all around Galilee and even from Jerusalem. Josephus doesn't say this, but he does suggest that it was enough to cause Herod to fear revolt, so that would seem like quite a lot of people!