Josephus, John the Baptist and the Historical Jesus

JesusThe 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.

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35 thoughts on “Josephus, John the Baptist and the Historical Jesus”

  1. Your writings support the notion that Jesus did not exist. We can just as easily assume the person who wrote Mark (we don’t know it was Mark) Could have written his gospel after Josephus. If some one fed 1,000 people with a few fish or raised people or himself from the dead, or drove sinners from the temple you would think Josephus would have heard more about that person than a preacher who baptized folks. Palestine is not a large place and population quite small. All Jesus accomplishments and no single eye witnesss or first person account.

  2. You are free to believe what you wish. But scholarship does not support you. You also miss my point. Neither Mark nor Josephus are dependant on each other, they have separate accounts unrelated which suggests John the Baptist did exist.

    As for Josephus’ record of Jesus: why do you think Josephus wrote his histories? It was not just to provide an unbiased history of the people for the sake of interest. Josephus wrote his work as Jewish apologetic to the Roman emperor. He included just enough information to give an overview of what had happened. By the time Josephus was writing the Romans were having strained relations with the Romans and would not really help the Jewish cause to draw too close of a connection.

      1. Josephus being biased for his Roman sponsors is no different than a writer today being biased for the his host state.

        Has nothing to do with the historicity of his witness to John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth whom he did not believe in or the martyrdom of James, Jesus’ little brother.

        He had no external pressure by Rome or Jews to discuss any of those figures, he just did.

        Further, in the Talmud we have a second secular witness to much of the life of Christ described in the Gospel accounts, albeit by those who hated Him in disrespectful fashion. Like those who murdered The Lord, had they known what they were doing, they’d not have done it.

        If someone really believes Jesus of Nazareth is not a historic person, they are not considering reasonable evidence.

        No other “regular poor guy” in all ancient history is known by 3 separate sources like Christ is. If He isn’t reality, ancient history doesn’t exist.

  3. that is a huge stretch and does nothing to indicate the existance of Jesus as a person much less any of the things some believe he did. It is clear evidence that this being the only actual historical link makes no mention of Jesus. There is nothing else.

    1. Even if there was evidence to support an historical Jesus, there would be more evidence to suggest he was an ancient version of Chris Angel. And the fact that the bible and history of Jesus seems to be basically recycled from ancient egyption and mediterranean religions is completely ignored by Christians.

  4. There is no huge stretch. If Josephus included the miracles you would say that it must be a later Christian addition. Without the miracles you say it proves Josephus did not know of Jesus. Scholars note that the lack of detail points to it being authentic to Josephus. You may not want there to be evidence of Jesus, but the fact is it is there.

  5. Its amazing that any one would use Josephus as evidence. Even more that its admitted he is the best we have. We have countless examples of eye witness accounts in our day that have been proven to be false. Men sent to execution even now after the best evidence fornensic and eye witness accounts. Apparently in the last 30 or so years DNA evidence has learned over 23 people have been executed after a modern trial with jury. Josephus with hear say 3 party stories and nothing to compare him with is the “best” evidence we have and only becuase he mentions John the Baptist. Jesus is supposed to have performed actual amazing miracles before countless witnesses and not even a copy of a copy of one first hand Roman or Greek or Hebrew account exists of Jesus existance let alone anything millions believe he actually did. Of course millions believe in Moroni, and Mohamed and Buddah ete etc.

  6. You question the reliability of even modern accounts. We must confess the limits of reports but if we take this too far, it becomes extreme skepticism that leads to the questioning of everything. Can you prove to me that George Washington lived? Can you prove that Napoleon or Peter the Great lived? If we take your standards we would have to assume that no one other than the people we have met personally (and even then we might be mistaken) has ever existed.

    As for Josephus, his importance is not based on an evangelical or Christian bias. You will find Jewish and secular scholars admitting the importance of Josephus. Josephus has his limits but he is important.

    As important as Josephus is, he is not our best source. Paul and the Gospels are our best sources for looking at the historical Jesus.

    So why did not the majority of the witnesses go home and write an account of what they witnessed? Should we not have thousands of accounts? The answer is in the literacy in the first century. Literacy was very low and so most of the people that heard Jesus could not have written it down even if they wanted to. Their testimonies became part of an oral tradition which eventually found itself in the Gospels. What we know about modern oral cultures tells us that these traditions were passed on accurately and there were ways to prevent major changes. See Richard Baukham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses for more information.

    1. You proceed from a number of false assumptions. First, yes we can prove Napoleon and George Washington lived. You see, historical documentation can be validated by the fact that independent sources from independent cultures wrote of the same subject.

      Josephus’s writings on Jesus have been widely accepted as forgeries for centuries. The only “Scholars” who dispute this finding are Christian scholars, and I think we both know why.

      Additionally, regarding John the Baptist, correlation is not causation, and to use it as an argument is very weak.

      1. Justin, can you name the contemporary independent sources for Napoleon or Washington? What about Alexander the Great? The earliest biographies of Alexander are hundreds of years after the events. We have almost nothing from near his life time. But of course we would never doubt the existence of Alexander.

        As for Josephus’ comment on Jesus as being widely accepted by scholars as forgeries, can you name any Josephus scholars who have labelled it as a forgery. The truth is that it is widely accepted that Christians added to Josephus’ testimony of Jesus but it is an extremely small number who disregard it in its entirety. Take a look at Steve Mason’s Joesphus and the New Testament.

  7. Forgive me for my Christian bias. But I must indulge.
    “Thoe one raised from the dead they would still not believe”

    It seems there is a the element of faith missing here that is so critical and no amount of history oral or written could ever convice a extreme sckeptic.

    Not that he wants to be a sckeptic, but is afraid to believe something so good and true could happen even if it were porven.

    Johns gospel account records a similar man whose name was Thomas , who would not beleive the oral account of the Other desciples of Jesus being raised from the dead until he saw him personally and put his hands in his wounds.

    Some times skepticism can be a need to be convinced and probably a result of past disapointments in life. Other times it can be a cloak of deciet to justify a life without meaning or purpose.

    Keep searching and you will find your evidence hopefully it will not be to late for you and the evidence will be a witness against you.

  8. This is more than a stretch, and not even a hint of scholarly credibility here. If the god-man existed and the things he did would fill the entire volumes of the world, and, not one sentence about him can be found outside “christian” myth, then it certainly smacks of a SHAM.

  9. You are assuming that if Jesus was divine that everyone would have believed that. That obviously was not the case. The Romans and most of the Jews did not believe that and so they did not pay that much attention to Jesus. Josephus slightly acknowledged Jesus and it was left to the Christians to record his life. It is the claim that Jesus never existed that is the unscholarly sham.

  10. Justin and Larry,
    Here is a thought. What if YOU in all your self rightesous, puffed up, so-called enlightenment are wrong? Now I won’t waste time trying to convince you. I won’t cast my pearls before swine. But what if, just what if, YOU are wrong? Even if you were right, what have I done by believing and acting the way the Bible teaches? I have lived a life serving my fellow man, treating others well and being a kind, generous person. Is there anything wrong with that? Of Course not. And when my time ends I feel ready and even anxious towards passing. And if I am right then I go on to something vastly better.
    However…you on the other hand. If there is no God, no divine reward, then what reason is there for you to do anything except that which serves yourself. Self indulgent, greedy, non-caring. What good do you do? But if YOU are wrong what happens when you pass? You try everything you can to put it off…which you cant’t do. Then, if you have been this puffed up egghead non believer…suddenly you are judged unworthy. UH OH! Now there’s a BIG surprise. So tell me Mr. Smarty pants, what do you have to lose by being a believer? What do you stand to gain? If for no other reason than to “cover your bets” wouldn’t it make sense? How hard is it to be a believer? Or are you just, “too stuck on yourself.” What a pity.

  11. The sad truth is that for people like myself who totally accepted the New Testament for decades, now have come to the realization that there is precious little written about Jesus in the secular history of the 1st century.I tend to agree with Larry,phenomenal acts done by Jesus yet hardly any mention of them outside the gospels? I suppose that’s why we have the famous NT faith quote that says that we are to believe even if we see no evidence to that effect. I find it all very disappointing.

    1. I’m with you David. What’s more puzzling, is that if you follow the book of Acts, post Pentecost, there should have been a very sizable Jewish Christian community in Judea (Jerusalem area) and Samaria and Galilee (Capernaum, Nazareth). Per the four Gospels, these areas knew Jesus (everyone was amazed at Jesus’ teaching and authority, was looking for him for healings, etc…) If the Gospels are truly historical, then everyone in these regions either heard of Jesus or personally saw Him. And either knew someone healed or was personally healed by Him.

      YET.. the earliest post apostolic Church Fathers are Gentiles from ROME! Why is that? Per Acts 8:1, there was a great persecution in Jerusalem and the Jewish Christians fled to Judea and Samaria, preaching the good news! And they fled to ripe ground for this news. “Hey, remember Jesus? You know that guy who healed aunt so and so and uncle of so and so? …”

      And in Acts 15, the Jerusalem council gets assembled, proving that the Jerusalem is still the center of 1st Century Christianity. Yet, what happened to all those Christians? Why don’t we know of any Church Fathers? The earliest Church Fathers appear to be the disciples of Paul, who was not an eyewitness.

  12. Here is the question we must ask: If Jesus did exist and preached for three years, mostly in Galilee but some in Judea, what type of secular evidence would we expect? Would we expect the Roman historians to immediately recognize Jesus as the Son of God and make him the center of their writing? Would we expect loads of Jewish accounts even though much of the population was illiterate and the climate does not allow much of what was written to survive? What is it that we would expect that is missing?

    Aside from being a Christian and actually believing in Jesus, as a historian this what I would expect:

    1) Records by Christians (which we have in the Gospels and Paul).
    2) Mention by Josephus (which we have, Josephus does not make a big deal about Jesus, but gives him the treatment we would expect).
    3) Traditions that would later enter the rabbinic writings (which we have in the Talmud).

    Considering all this, I do not find the evidence disappointing at all.

  13. Good stuff my brother..

    Pretty simple task to get to the bottom of the truth.. If you believe there is a higher power.. Why don’t you ask Him to reveal who He is.. Ask and seek without ceasing and you’ll find the Answer.. i guarantee it..

  14. thanks Stephen,
    just came across your blog – appreciate this entry and your responses to other readers – interesting discussion!

  15. I’m sorry, Jesus IS a historical figure. There is no other explanation for what happened in the few short decades after his life, and why his disiples would have been willing to die preaching the gospel. There was just no gain it in at all, other than to be reviled madmen, which they were (and we sometimes are now, things haven’t really all that much). There is much more evidense for when you add, Peter, Paul, James, Clement, etc. Most “real” (“others just don’t want to believe and throw out weak attacks”) sceptics try to explain how Jesus wasn’t really divine and a series of events that would have eventually fooled many into believing he was. That’s quite a hard task if you try…why don’t you???

  16. Consider what would have to be the case:
    – Jesus was a creative genius of the highest order, but must have been mentally unstable.
    – The common disciples were so strongly impressed with Him, they spread fanciful stories to increase His fame and their influence.
    – Jesus was put to death (see Matt 28, Roman soldiers…).
    – Along comes Paul, who also happens to be an absolute genius with complete knowledge of the Old Testament. He embellishes the story. He either really believed it, or he’s producing a cunningly devised fable (Peter responded to this early criticism).
    – Just keep going like this…
    – Now go read Paul’s letters. I’m mean is that really the way you expect him to do that? Where did this beautiful still relevant stuff come from? Oh, and they all had to be in cahoots, but were smart enough to each tell the story in their own words. Too better fool us obviously…they were really bad people..but had a very good message…
    – This all gets much harder if you try to start with no historical Jesus. Think about it…it may take a little effort, but hey you got the rest of your life

    1. how about a hypothesis that Jesus is probably in the same sect as John the Baptist, but stories about Him get embellished as time goes on.

      Mark, the earliest Gospel, says nothing about the resurrection, but only talks about an empty tomb. The man meets frightened women (in Judea’s tomb) and tells them to tell disciples that they are to go to Galilee (70-80 miles AWAY from the tomb) as Jesus prophesized.

      Matthew actually says that the disciples met Jesus in GALILEE.
      Luke has them meeting Jesus in Jerusalem (Judea). And Jesus tells them to stay in the city, don’t go anywhere (not even to Galilee).

      So, who saw the risen Jesus? Why did Jesus not show Himself to the Pharisees? After all, He said that THIS wicked generation will be given a sign of Jonah. But if Jesus never showed up resurrected to them, then how were they given a sign?

      Should there not be mass conversions of Jews to Christianity? Judging by the numbers of Acts, there were thousands of people being baptised.

      (Also, of interesting note, Jesus Himself (rather His disciples) were baptizing people even before his death and resurrection. It’s curious that Josephus knows John the Baptist but not Jesus. Especially curious is the fact that Josephus talks about John the Baptist as a great man, so there should be no reason for Josephus to omit Jesus who was VERY admired by John the Baptist.

  17. Our Ancient documents of biblical evidence, in particular the NT, Paul’s letters are not our oldest documents.

    P 52 is our oldest manuscript. Modern scholarship says it was written around 27 years from its original counterpart. This makes John 18:31-33,37-38 one of our oldest attested manuscript of new testament document.

    P46, mainly a Pauline manuscript, has a time span of 150 years from its original counterpart.

    Is it not ironic that the oldest documented evidence of the New Testament biblical text attest to #1, their not Pauline and #2, they attest to his death?

    The Lukan papyrus, has been dated to the late 1st century or early 2nd century, so it could predates the John papyrus by 20-30 years. New research mentions a fragment from the book of Mark found among the Qumran scrolls (fragment 7Q5) showing that it was written sometime before 68 AD, so this manuscript could have been written, at the latest, within 35 years of Jesus’ death; possibly earlier, and thus should be looked at AS CREDIBLE HISTORICAL DOCUMENTATION.

    Of the four gospels alone there are 19,368 citations by the church fathers from the late first century on. 268 by Justin Martyr 1038 by Ireneaus 1017 by Clement of Alexandria 9231 by Origen 3822 by Tertullian 734 by Hippolytus 325 by Eusebius Clement of Rome cited Matthew, John, 1 Corinthians in 95 to 97 Ignatius referred to six Pauline Epistles Polycarp quoted from all four Gospels, Acts and most of Paul’s Epistles.

    Shepherd of Hermas cited Matthew, Mark, Acts, I Corinthians, and other books Didache referred to Matthew, Luke, 1 Corinthians, and other books

    Papias, companion of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John, quoted John. This argues powerfully that the Gospels were in existence before the end of the first century, while some eyewitnesses (including John) were still alive.

    The very enemies of Christianity claimed that he lived–and that he performed miracles! Early Jewish documents such as the Mishnah–as well as first-century Gentile historians–such as Thallus, Serapion, and Tacitus–all testify that the one called Christ lived in Palestine and died under Pontius Pilate.

    Some of the writings were hostile to Christianity, but still documented the historical fact of Jesus.

    It is obvious that both the Jewish leaders and the Roman government had been antagonistic towards Christianity. Why during the earlier years of Christianity is there no historical documents refuting the existence of Jesus Christ of Nazareth? Why is it in ‘ancient times even the opponents of Christianity never doubted the historicity of Jesus’?

    Many biblical scholars turn to Paul’s letters (epistles) to support their arguments for a historical Jesus. Theologian James D.G. Dunn argues that Robert Price ignores what everyone else in the field regards as primary data. Biblical scholar F. F. Bruce (1910–1990) writes that, according to Paul’s letters, Jesus was an Israelite, descended from Abraham (Gal 3:16) and David (Rom. 1:3); who lived under Jewish law (Gal. 4:4); who was betrayed, and on the night of his betrayal instituted a memorial meal of bread and wine (I Cor. 11:23ff); who endured the Roman penalty of crucifixion (I Cor. 1:23; Gal. 3:1, 13, 6:14, etc.), although Jewish authorities were somehow involved in his death (I Thess. 2:15); who was buried, rose the third day and was thereafter seen alive, including on one occasion by over 500, of whom the majority were alive 25 years later (I Cor. 15:4ff). The letters say that Paul knew of and had met important figures in Jesus’s ministry, including the apostles Peter and John, as well as James the brother of Jesus, who is also mentioned in Josephus. In the letters, Paul on occasion alludes to and quotes the teachings of Jesus, and in 1 Corinthians 11 recounts the Last Supper.

  18. There are also the mentions of Jesus and Mary in the Jewish Talmud which their tradition has it was begun after 70 AD( which in and of itself is powerful evidence of Jesus’ identity being God based on both the warnings about 70 AD and Josephus’ documenting the fleeing from Jerusalem). Derogatory of course, but, a very important point is they agree with the Gospel accounts on 2 big issues.

    1) Jesus was crucified on passover eve.

    2) They agree He did miracles, but, like the Gospel accounts state about the Jewish leadership of 30 AD, they assign satanic power to Christ as a sorcerer.

    Pretty impressive evidence for His miraculous life since these rabbinical Jews hated Jesus, just do a search and read the stuff they wrote. Yet they inadvertently have given impirical evidence Jesus of Nazareth and Mary both existed and that these Jews believed Jesus did miracles.

    Now, objectors will say this Mary and her son Yeshu is not Biblical Jesus, but, this Yeshu was crucified on passover eve( which frankly is unthinkable for a Jew to enjoy another Jew being murdered by pagan Romans in those days except for our Jesus) and did miracles with a mother named Mary whom they denigrate as an adulterous whore and whom they counter was not and should not be worshipped as Messiah. If you don’t think they’re discussing our Jesus, you would be wrong.

    That’s a non Christian, Jewish corroboration for the miraculous Christ we Christians worship.

    Another inadvertent Jewish clue to the authenticity of Jesus is that Jews changed their religion after Christ. A book written by an orthodox Jew, Alan Segal, demonstrates ancient Judaism understood there were 2 Yahweh’s, just as the NT demonstrates. They changed that after Christ and considered that a heresy.

    This URL is a quick primer on why Segal concluded this from the massoretic text as well as other info in his book, “2 Powers in Heaven”:

    One more theme, the angst non Christians demonstrate about what they claim to be a myth is very odd. Why would a normal human argue about something being a myth they believed was a myth? Why would I waste my time debating about Buddha, Santa Claus or Zeus? Answer, I wouldn’t.

    None of these folks waste time on Islam, Hinduism, Zoroaster or Zeus, do they? Which in and of itself is evidence the Biblical narrative is accurate because it predicts and warns we believers to expect exactly this hostility. 2000 years later, they still haven’t learned, their hostility is impirical evidence for Christ.

  19. The Great Philosopher Philo AD 40 .was 60 years old at the time of the crucifiction.Nothing about the Christians thier doctrines or sacred books mentioned.Mathatias father of Josephus was around at the time of Jesus.Josephus makes no big deal about an earthly Jesus.

  20. Notice how you described Philo, he was a philosopher and not a historian. Why would he talk about Jesus? Jesus, if Philo was aware of him, did not fit with his philosophical aims. Josephus does not make a “big deal” about Jesus, but he does mention him twice. Why would Josephus make a big deal of Jesus? Josephus was writing a Jewish apologetic for a Roman audience.

    1. There was no historical jesus of nazareth who was nailed by Pilate , he is a complete fabrication by later christian writers who read the writings of Philo and Josephus and then created the biblibal jesus from the many jesus that exist in the earlier sources in order to placate Rome .

      Funny how christians steer clear of one Jesus , son of Sapphias who Josephus describes as the leader of the Galilean boatmen who fought both Rome and Jerusalem , led the party of the poor , who was called the GATE who would lead his people to salvation but ultimately there blood filled the water under the persecution of Nero, Vespasian , and Titus of which Josephus was an eye witness .

      Sapphias is from hebrew sappir being Josephus actually was a Jew , sappir is a cup for holding blood … ” This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as often as ye drink [it], in remembrance of me “… Jesus

      Thank God ! for Josephus !!

  21. There most definitely was a historical Jesus of Nazareth. Have a look around this blog, I touch on this quite a bit. As for Jesus, son of Sapphias, Jesus was an extremely common Jewish name. There is no reason to expect any connection between him and the Jesus of the New Testament.

  22. Essentio there is no evidence that the original disciples, who went to their deaths proclaiming Christ the Messiah relied on Philo and Josephus, that is wishful thinking on your part. Why would they die for something they made up??
    There were other men named Jesus, that is why he is specifically identified as Jesus of Nazareth, from the House of David, son of Joseph. That narrowed it down to one man.

  23. How easy it is to sit at our keyboards and debate endlessly the existence of God. Yet the strongest and most compelling evidence is history, and not the history of 1st century Judea or the documents, but the history of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd century Church.

    How do you think the Church was built? A little preaching, some slick salesmanship? Incorrect. The early Church promised tribulation in the present, with life everlasting. The Living Christ touched people’s hearts and forged a bond that had power to defeat death. What myth ever accomplished that, and still does so today?

  24. The truth is no name splits a room like the name “Jesus”. One must wonder why that is? We CHOOSE to believe or disbelieve. Does our choice have an eternal consequence or not? If there was a Jesus, and if we can believe the Biblical account, he said, “Who do you say that I am?” In light of this discussion I would say that this is the most important question that has ever been asked and how we answer it matters. No one can convince anyone of something they don’t want to believe. It is human nature to twist the evidence to suit ones position. I find there are few really intellectually honest people who are in search of truth regardless where it may take them. People will see in the evidence what they want to see – the problem is it just might have lasting consequence.

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