The idea that Jesus was not a historical figure stubbornly remains in some areas. Is there truly any historical evidence for Jesus? There most definitely is. Some of the best non-biblical evidence comes from the first century Jewish historian, Josephus. Before we look at what Josephus said about Jesus, let us look at what Josephus said about John the Baptist. What does that have to do with Jesus? In the Gospels and Acts, the story of John the Baptist is bound together with that of Jesus. Besides that, those that claim that Jesus was a mythological figure sometimes make the same claim for John. Let us take a look at the evidence.
Antipas had married the daughter of Aretas, the King of Petra. On a journey to Rome Antipas had stayed with a half-brother ‘Herod’, the son of King Herod and his wife, the daughter of Simon the high priest. While there, Antipas had fallen in love with his half-brother’s wife, Herodias. Herodias agreed to marry Antipas after his return from Rome on condition he divorced the daughter of Aretas. Before Antipas’ return from Rome, the daughter of Aretas realized what was happening and fled back to her father. As a result Aretas invaded Antipas’ territory. Antipas’ army was defeated which some Jews saw as divine vengeance for Antipas’ execution of John the Baptist. Antipas is stated to have executed John because he feared John’s teachings could lead to unrest. (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.2-9)
Note that Josephus’ version is different but complementary to the Gospel version.
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.” (Mark 6:17-28, NRSV)
Mark does not mention any of the political intrigues with Aretas, king of Petra, but both mention Herod Antipas’ illegal marriage to Herodias. This tells us that Josephus knew a historical report about John the Baptist but that he was not dependent upon the Gospel of Mark. This gives us multiple attestation for the historical existence of Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist. This helps us to see that when we come to the Gospels, we are entering the world, not of myth, but of first century Jewish history.