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The death of John the Baptist

Roman portrait bust, said to be of Flavius Josephus. From Les Dossiers d' Archéologie (2001).
Roman portrait bust, said to be
of Flavius Josephus (from Les Dossiers d' Archéologie, 2001; ©!!!)
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (37-c.100) describes in his Jewish antiquities the destruction of the army of the Jewish leader Herod Antipas. Many people thought that this was a divine punishment, because Antipas had ordered the execution of a just man, John the Baptist.

The incident is hard to date; the story assumes that Antipas' brother Philip had already died (which he did in 34), but this seems too late, because John was already arrested before Jesus of Nazareth was executed (which probably happened in 30).

Unlike the Testimonium Flavianum, the authenticity of Josephus' words on John has never been doubted. The strongest argument for their authenticity is that they are not connected to Christian interpretations. If a Christian author would have inserted a story on John, he would have retold the stories found in the gospels of Mark and Luke (which are quoted here).

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Map of Judaea after the annexation by the Romans. Design Jona Lendering.
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Flavius Josephus, Jewish antiquities 18.109ff

About this time Aretas, the king of the Arabian city Petra, and Herod Antipas had a quarrel. Herod the tetrarch had married the daughter of Aretas [called Phasaelis], and had lived with her a great while. But when he was once at Rome, he lodged with Herod, who was his brother indeed, but not by the same mother (this Herod was the son of the high priest Sireoh's daughter). Here, he fell in love with Herodias, this other Herod's wife, who was the daughter of Aristobulus their brother, and the sister of Agrippa the Great. Antipas ventured to talk to her about a marriage between them; when she admitted, an agreement was made for her to change her habitation, and come to him as soon as he should return from Rome: one article of this marriage also was that he should divorce Aretas' daughter.

So Antipas made this agreement and returned home again. But his wife had discovered the agreement he had made before he had been able to tell her about it. She asked him to send her to Macherus, which is a place in the borders of the dominions of Aretas and Herod, without informing him of her intentions. So, Herod sent her thither, unaware that his wife had perceived something.

Earlier, she had sent to Macherus, and all things necessary for her journey were made already prepared for her by a general of Aretas' army. Consequently, she soon arrived in Arabia, under the conduct of several generals, who carried her from one to another successively. She met her father, and told him of Herod's intentions. So Aretas made this the first occasion of the enmity between him and Herod, who had also some quarrel with him about their limits near Gamala.

So both sides raised armies, prepared for war, and sent their generals to fight. When they joined battle, Herod's army was completely destroyed by the treachery of some fugitives, who, though they were from the tetrarchy of Philip, had joined Aretas' army. So Herod wrote about these affairs to the emperor Tiberius, who became very angry at the attempt made by Aretas, and wrote to Lucius Vitellius, the governor of Syria, 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 governor of Syria. 

Coin of Herod Antipas.
Coin of Herod Antipas (©!!)

Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God as a just punishment of what Herod had done against John, who was called the Baptist. For Herod had killed this good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God. For only thus, in John's opinion, would the baptism he administered be acceptable to God, namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies, inasmuch as it was taken for granted that their souls had already been purified by justice.
The Herodian fortress at Machereus. Photo Marco Prins.

Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words. Herod, who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best  to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John 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 John was sent as a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I already mentioned, and was put to death. Now the Jews thought that the destruction of his army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure with him.

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