Saturday, December 10, 2016

John the Baptist and Herod Antipas

A number of Biblical antagonists have accused the Gospel writers of error by stating that John the Baptist died at the start of Jesus' public ministry when clearly, they say, Josephus shows otherwise. While we believe that there is enough "evidence" to draw either conclusion depending upon a priori prejudice, there is not enough to make any allegations of error or fraud on the part of the Gospel writers or of Josephus.

One leading polemicist, Robert Price, uses a passage from Josephus' Antiquities to assert without qualification that Antipas beheaded John close to 36 AD using the following logic:
The war between Herod and Aretas took place in 36 CE and thus Josephus' mention of the Jews blaming Herod's defeat by Aretas on his killing of John the Baptist implies that Herod had John the Baptist killed some time within a year or so of the war.
Notice that Price does not use any evidence for his conclusion - he simply asserts that the sequence described by Josephus "implies" that the Baptist was killed within 1-2 years of the war between Aretas and Antipas. Price would have done well to say that it "implies to me", rather than making the ontological assertion that it implies to all reasonable people. I roundly disagree with the logic as theological gadflyery.

We let the reader see the evidence which Price used to form his conclusion:
1. ... So Aretas made this the first occasion of his enmity between him and Herod, who had also some quarrel with him about their limits at the country of Gamalitis. So they raised armies on both sides, and prepared for war, and sent their generals to fight instead of themselves; and when they had joined battle, all Herod's army was destroyed by the treachery of some fugitives, who, though they were of the tetrarchy of Philip, joined with Aretas's army.. So Herod wrote about these affairs to Tiberius, who being very angry at the attempt made by Aretas, wrote to Vitellius 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 president of Syria.
2. Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,) thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he 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 he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod's suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure to him.
One will notice that Josephus' accounts are completely devoid of dates, thus it would be foolhardy for anyone, no matter his biases, to determine the precise timing of John's death based upon these tellings. We would only concede that the war between Aretas and Antipas occurred in 36 AD.

Price attempts to pre-empt the counter-argument that Josephus' imprecise timing could allow for other time periods than 1-2 years between John's beheading and Antipas' military disasters by stating that it is "unlikely." That's it folks - it is simply "unlikely" and you don't deserve a reason.

Now Price and company are the same people who berate Josephus as a corrupt text whenever it mentions Jesus or anything else found in the Gospels, showing just how hypocritical they are. And even if they aren't hypocritical, it does show how plastic Josephus is in regards to ancient history - he becomes an historical sock puppet for whatever theories one espouses.

By way of background, Herod married Herodias c. 28/29 AD after divorcing his wife, the daughter of King Aretas of Nabataea. This would have been the opportune time for John to express his disapproval of Antipas' divorce and re-marriage. This date accords well with Gospel chronologies showing that John died before Jesus and at the beginning of his ministry.

Price is also quite exercised by the role of 2 women, Herodias and Salome, in the murder of John because it shows the Bible's animus towards women. Our view is that if the shoe fits, wear it. Eve, Delilah, Jezebel, and Salome all corrupted men, including Antipas who regretted having to comply with Salome's wish to behead John which he had granted her for her dancing at his party.

Not only are the Gospel authors to be excoriated for daring to report that 2 women were behind John's death, but Price also uses the Biblical account in an either/or dialectic which can only be described as puerile at best. In other words, Price insists that either Josephus is correct as interpreted by Price, or the Gospels are correct - but not both because the Gospels can't be reliable because he has "proven" that they are not historical documents.

Our view is that both accounts are compatible - and certainly do not contradict each other. The various authors are considering different aspects of the same phenomenon.

As you see in the above excerpt, Josephus regards the murder of John as the consequence of his popularity, which according to Price proves that the Gospels are in error for reporting it due to John's impolitic remarks. We would like to think that Price never considered the possibility that both could be true, but we think someone as mentally gymnastic as our adversary simply refuses to acknowledge it. Even if one or the other is wrong, reason would need to be provided for such an assertion of black and white either/or-ism.

One would also need to prove that one must be wrong if both reports are different.

Future evidence may compel a reconsideration of the chronological sequence of events regarding Antipas' remarriage, John's beheading, and Antipas' military defeat, but in the main, both the Biblical and Josephan accounts are compatible - or at least certainly not contradictory. If we should be proven wrong, we will eat crow, but in the meantime, Mr Price can eat other hors d'oeuvres.

Post script - One oddity which Price did not observe is why Josephus reported that some of the Jews believed that Antipas suffered military defeat over the death of John the Baptist, but did not seem to care about the death of Jesus. Certainly the Galileans would have cared, and the same people who cared about John would have cared about Jesus.

By 36 AD both men had been put to death. Could it be that they knew that Jesus rose from the grave and the point was moot? Or did they know that vengeance awaited Jerusalem at some distant point in retaliation for the crucifixion of Jesus?

Robert Price, Jesus Myth - The Case Against Historical Christ,, January 3, 2007, accessed 12/10/2016.

Copyright Tony Bonn