John the Baptist in Luke and Josephus

by Ed Gallagher

Bonus Material for Luke Lesson 1, “John the Baptist in Luke

Each of the Gospels includes John the Baptist. The story of Jesus cannot be told without mentioning the forerunner of the Lord, who prepared his way. But Luke has more material about John than any other Gospel, not only narrating his ministry in extended detail (3:1–20), but also his birth (ch. 1). The birth narrative is unique to Luke, but most of the other material on John does have parallels in the other Gospels. This other material includes:

  • John’s ministry (Luke 3:1–20), with parallels at Mark 1:1–8 and Matthew 3:1–12, but Luke alone includes John’s response to specific questions about repentance (3:10–14), and Luke provides a specific date (3:1–2). 
  • Luke (7:18–35) and Matthew (11:2–19) record John’s question to Jesus as to whether he was the Coming One, along with Jesus’ response to John’s disciples and his speech to the crowd in praise of John. 
  • Luke does not include the story about the death of John as instigated by Herodias and her daughter’s dance for Herod Antipas, which is instead recorded in Mark 6:14–29 and Matthew 14:1–12. But Luke does include the material at the beginning of these accounts of John’s death, when Herod Antipas wondered whether Jesus might be John raised from the dead (9:7–9). 

Outside the New Testament, Josephus (the late-first-century Jewish historian) also provides an account of John the Baptist. This is in the context of Josephus’ description of a battle between Herod Antipas and Aretas IV, the king of Nabataea. Antipass suffered a devestating defeat, and Josephus explains one theory why: 

But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist (Ἰωάννου τοῦ ἐπικαλουμένου βαπτιστοῦ). (117) For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man (ἀγαθὸν ἄνδρα) and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practise justice towards their fellows and piety towards God, and so doing to join in baptism (καὶ τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις κελεύοντα ἀρετὴν ἐπασκοῦσιν καὶ τὰ πρὸς ἀλλήλους δικαιοσύνῃ καὶ πρὸς τὸν θεὸν εὐσεβείᾳ χρωμένοις βαπτισμῷ συνιέναι). In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God (οὕτω γὰρ δὴ καὶ τὴν βάπτισιν ἀποδεκτὴν αὐτῷ φανεῖσθαι). They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed (μὴ ἐπί τινων ἁμαρτάδων παραιτήσει χρωμένων), but as a consecration of the body (ἀλλ’ ἐφ’ ἁγνείᾳ τοῦ σώματος) implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behaviour (ἅτε δὴ καὶ τῆς ψυχῆς δικαιοσύνῃ προεκκεκαθαρμένης). (118) When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and see his mistake. (119) Though John, because of Herod’s suspicions, was brought in chains to Machaerus, the stronghold that we have previously mentioned, and there put to death, yet the verdict of the Jews was that the destruction visited upon Herod’s army was a vindication of John, since God saw fit to inflict such a blow on Herod.

Josephus, Antiquities 18.116–1191

There are two main differences between what Josephus says about John and what the New Testament says about him: (1) the reason for his death, and (2) the purpose of his baptism. As to the first, the reason for his death, Josephus can be harmonized with the New Testament, assuming that the New Testament reported one side of Herod’s fear of John (the moral side) and Josephus emphasized the other (the political side).2 As for the purpose of John’s baptism, Josephus says it was not for forgiveness of sins, and the New Testament says it was. Probably Josephus, who was not a contemporary of John—he was probably born about the time John died—was simply not properly informed about John’s preaching. 


(1) Trans. Louis H. Feldman, LCL, vol. 9 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965), 81–85.

(2) This is the explanation offered by Feldman in the LCL edition, vol. 9, p. 83, note e.

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