[Editor’s note: An excerpt from the article this question refers to, as well as a link to the article are found after my response to her question. It would be a good idea to look at the link in order to understand the issue being raised]
What do you make of this article that states that John the Baptist died 5 years after Jesus was crucified and furthermore never truly followed Jesus and continued to be an independent prophet? i.e. the Gospels were just a re-writing of history to fit the Jesus narrative?
I have read this article and found it, at the very least, to be interesting. The idea of this article is that, according to Josephus, John the Baptist died after Philip the Tetrarch, who we know from other sources, died in 36 AD. If this were true, then the New Testament description of John the Baptist would clearly be wrong. In fact it would be VERY wrong. The gospels have John the Baptist dying well before Jesus. This is not a minor point in the gospels! The point being made by this author is that the New Testament has it wrong, not merely as an accident. This author claims that the New Testament has it wrong, essentially, on purpose! In other words, the writers of all four gospels basically invented the lie that John the Baptist died before Jesus was crucified as a way to explain away the fact that he never actually joined the Jesus movement. You can see why, if this author is correct, this is a MAJOR problem for Christianity!
We can see why this would be shocking for a Christian to learn. If the story of John the Baptist’s death in the New Testament were a fiction–one invented to explain away a problem for Christianity, then this would undermine the reliability of almost all of the gospel accounts. So, what is going on here?
Here is what it comes down to. Let me assume that Josephus has the date of the death of Philip the Tetrarch correct. I have no particular reason to doubt he is right on this. It is somewhat unlikely that Josephus would be so far off on the death of an important figure in the political life of the Jewish people. Here, then, is the question: If there is a contradiction between the four gospels and Josephus on the timing of the death of John the Baptist, who is more likely to be correct? The author of the article you refer to assumes that Josephus is correct and the biblical writers are wrong. He does not even bother to consider the possibility that he has this backward. This is typical, I am afraid, of many scholars. They assume that whenever there is an apparent contradiction between a biblical writer and an external source, the Bible is always wrong, and the other source is always right. This presupposition ought to make us VERY skeptical of such writers, as the Bible has proven again and again, in a vast number of instances to be historically reliable–the most reliable source of the history of the ancient Near East we have.
But, let us not make the same mistake that this author is making, which is to assume the answer without even asking the question. Here is the question: Who is more likely to get the details of exactly how and when John the Baptist was killed, Josephus or the four gospel writers? My answer is that the answer is pretty obvious, and the author you are quoting is almost certainly not correct! Here is why.
First of all, both Josephus and the biblical writers agree on why John the Baptist was killed. It is because he called out Herod Antipas on his sinful relationship with Herodius. Josephus puts this closer to AD 36. All four gospels writers put the death closer to AD 29. Who is more likely to get this right? The apostle John knew John the Baptist personally. He met him. So did Matthew. Luke is a very careful historian who met many people who knew John the Baptist. Mark was intimately connected with Peter, who also knew John the Baptist. For all four gospel writers, John the Baptist plays a major role in their story. It is impossible that they simply were mistaken about whether he was killed before or after Jesus! The only scenario then, by which the four gospel writers could have this wrong is that all of them agreed on a conspiracy to lie about John the Baptist! This idea is simply not a believable one. All of these people died or at the very least were threatened with death on a regular basis because of their belief. Mark wrote in the 50s or the 60s AD, when there were thousands of eye-witnesses to John the Baptist still alive. Luke and Matthew wrote in the 60s. Again, there is no possible way that they could have invented a fake story about John the Baptist within 30 years of his death, given that thousands of people were still alive when these gospels were written who had been living, many of whom actually heard John the Baptist teach! This idea that the apostle John would lie about John the Baptist is completely out of character with John. Even if he were to decide to invent a story about John the Baptist, he would have to get the other three gospel writers to agree to this conspiratorial lie. Again, this proposal is not rational, given the commitment of these men to the truth of the Christian gospel. Remember, that the story and details of the life of John the Baptist are an intimate part of the gospel accounts (unlike the situation with Josephus).
Now, let us consider the possibility that Josephus got the date wrong. If this were true, then it would not change any other single thing that Josephus wrote. It would require that Josephus be a liar. All it would require is that Josephus got a single relatively obscure fact in his overall account of Jewish history incorrect. Let us remember that he was writing in the 90s AD and that, unlike the gospel writers, he had no major connection to either John the Baptist, or to Christianity in general. The likelihood that Josephus got this particular fact wrong, that the execution of John the Baptist happened after Philip the Tetrarch died, is not at all unreasonable. If he were to have the date of the death of John the Baptist wrong, it would not require that he be telling a willful lie (unlike Matthew or Mark). It would not require that he answer to thousands of people, still alive, who read Josephus and were well aware of the potential error.
I could go on here. The conclusion is that this article proves, not that the New Testament got the story of John the Baptist wrong, but that the author of this article is clearly very biased against the Bible and in favor of Josephus, who got a lot of details wrong, as all well-informed historians know. To be honest, this article is downright embarrassing, given what we know about the overall situation surrounding the first century, Christianity, and its relationship to Josephus. You can be quite safe in rejecting this article as being the result of uncareful research and uncareful thinking–due to anti-Christian bias. The reason that John the Baptist did not join the Christian movement is that he died before the Christian movement began. The idea that Josephus would be more reliable on this question than those who actually knew Jesus and John the Baptist should not be taken seriously.
The following is an excerpt from the link below that the questioner included with her original inquiry:
Why Didn’t John Join the Jesus Movement? In all likelihood, it was a well-known fact among those living in the first-century C.E. that John remained an independent spiritual leader until his violent death. He never submitted himself to the authority of Jesus or anyone else. This left the Christian narrative about John open to a challenge: If John’s prophecies indeed announced the coming of Jesus, why didn’t the Baptist himself join the Jesus movement?
The author of the gospel of Mark offers a simple but elegant solution to this problem: the Baptist was executed before Jesus began his public mission. Thus, John simply lacked the opportunity to join Jesus’ movement. Similarly, although Matthew and Luke assume that John was still alive at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, they too have John executed before Jesus’ crucifixion, thus also implying the John didn’t have the opportunity to join the movement that he otherwise certainly would have.
Historical evidence, however, suggests that John the Baptist lived about five years after Jesus was executed.
Dating the Executions of John and Jesus
John’s execution must postdate Herod Antipas’ marrying Herodias and pre-date Herod Antipas’ loss in battle to King Aretas of Nabatea. Given that the death of Tiberius on 16 March, 37 C.E. put an end to the preparations for a second battle, we can assume that the original battle was fought not long before this, in 36 C.E., and that John was executed shortly before that, say in 35 C.E.
Jesus was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, who was the governor of Judea between ca. 26 C.E. and 36 C.E. Hints in the gospels as well as in the Pauline Epistles strongly suggest that Jesus’ mission and passion took place in the middle of this period, sometime in the late 20s or early 30s.
In other words, Jesus’ public mission and violent death took place several years before the Baptist died. Thus, we must discount the explanations in Mark, Matthew, and Luke for why John didn’t join the Jesus movement: John was alive and well in this period, and his attack on Herod Antipas’ marriage hadn’t even occurred yet.
Remaking John the Baptist as Connected to Jesus
The historical John the Baptist had little if any relation to the historical Jesus and his movement; indeed, the contemporaneous Josephus Flavius, who discusses both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, never connects the two in any way.
Jesus may indeed have met John the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry. He may have been baptized by John and inspired by him. But John does not appear to have recognized Jesus, nor did he have any special beliefs about him. John had his own ministry and teachings, completely independent of those of Jesus.
The idea that John was a forerunner of Jesus, first attested in the Gospel of Mark, originated in the Jesus movement, probably in the late 60s or early 70s C.E., several decades after both had died. Having John the Baptist die first helps to explain why he never actively joined the group of Jesus’ disciples, allowing the earliest Christ-believing historiographers an opportunity to create a strong bond between the two Galilean charismatic masters. This made their savior more appealing to the many Jews who venerated John the Baptist, and probably paved the way for John’s former disciples to join the Jesus movement.
The posthumous incorporation of John the Baptist and his teachings into the Jesus movement brought with it his central ritual: baptism, and John’s baptism of Jesus in the waters of Jordan is widely considered as the prototype of baptism as a central rite of Christianity. Though it sounds paradoxical, a thoroughly Jewish religious teacher eventually became a central saint of Christianity.