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John the Baptist – Does His Existence Validate the Gospels?

Was John the Baptist a real historical figure and would it validate the truthfulness of the Gospels? The question is answered by some very unusual sources, fierce opponents of Christianity.

Mark begins its Gospel immediately by declaring Jesus to be the Son of God. Following next is a montage of quotes from three prophecies – Exodus 23:2, Malachi 3:1, Isaiah 40:3. These prophecies serve as the pretext to introduce John the Baptist who identifies himself as the predecessor for the One whose sandal laces he was not worthy to untie.[1]

John, the eyewitness Gospel, recognizes John the Baptist as the one who testified about the Light identified as Jesus Christ.[2] Denying he is the Messiah, the Priests and Levites then questioned his true identity. John the Baptist quoted Isaiah 40:3 saying he was the one being prophesied.

JN 1:26, 29 “’I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not recognize, who is coming after me. I am not worthy to untie the strap of his sandal!’

“On the next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one about whom I said, “‘After me comes a man who is greater than I am, because he existed before me.’” (NET)

One of the most passionate opponents to the belief that Jesus is the Messiah is Judaism. Nevertheless, the Jewish Encyclopedia in its entry for the “New Testament” makes references to the life and teachings of Jesus first starting with John the Baptist:

“The whole picture of John the Baptist and of Jesus as bearers of good tidings to the poor has the stamp of greater truthfulness.”[3]

Formerly a Pharisee member of the Sanhedrin chosen as a general to lead the Jewish military was Flavius Josephus. After his capture by the Romans, he became a Jewish historian for Rome. In Antiquity of the Jews, he specifically wrote about John the Baptist using nearly 300 words.[4]

“…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 toward 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 purifications of the body; supporting still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.”

Corroborating the Gospel accounts, Josephus details more unseemly circumstances behind the execution of John the Baptist. The initial setting starts with Tetrarch Herod Antipas being married to the daughter of Arabian Petra King Aretas.

During a trip to Rome, Herod Antipas stayed with his half-brother Herod Philip (their father was the late King Herod); met and fell in love with Philip’s wife, Herodias, sister of Agrippa the Great.[5] The two paramours conspired to move in together after they returned from Rome based on the agreement Antipas would divorce his current wife.

“…Herodius took upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorced herself from her husband while he was alive, and was married to Herod [Antipas], her husband’s brother of the father’s side; he was tetrarch of Galilee; but her daughter Salome was married to Philip, the son of Herod, and tetrarch of Galilee…”[6]

Unbeknownst to Herod Antipas, his current wife discovered the tryst. In a preemptive move, she requested to be sent to the castle of Macherus which was near her Arabian father. Insulted by the infidelity against his daughter, King Aretas sent his army to do battle with the troops of Herod Antipas allegedly over a boarder dispute. Aided by the secret support of Herold Philip’s troops, Aretas defeated the army of Herod Antipas.[7]

Insider and outsider views of why John the Baptist was executed can be two distinctly different things, yet both can be true. An insider source to the Gospel authors may very well have been Joanna, household manager of Herod Antipas.[8] She would have had sources and intimate knowledge of the thinking inside of the family of Herod Antipas.

Matthew and Mark attribute the reason for the execution of John the Baptist to a grudge held by Herodias for being shamed by him.[9] Josephus attributed the public reason for the execution of John the Baptist to the perception that he was a political threat:

“…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 anything 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…” – Josephus[10]

Interestingly, Josephus used the word “repent,” a word in Judaism that carries a specific religious connotation, especially for a Pharisee.[11] To repent first requires an act against God’s Law followed by the transgressor’s confession, regret and a promise not to repeat it.[12]

Execution by a ruler was not necessarily a sin against God and, regardless, could not be undone whereas repentance of violating God’s Law for adultery certainly fits the concept of redemption. Some of the Jews believed, twice stated by Josephus, the reason for the destruction of Herod Antipas’ army was a punishment from God for his execution of John the Baptist:

“Now, some of the Jews thought that the destructions of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, called the Baptist, for Herod slew him, who was a good man…” [13]

Affirming the life of John the Baptist is another strong opponent to the belief that Jesus is the Messiah – the Muslim religion. John the Baptist aka Yahya is referenced in four different books of the Quran. He is described as respectful and obedient to his parents; a devout, noble and chaste person – a prophet and a witness to the truth of the “Word” of God.[14]

Luke’s Gospel and the Quran both describe the miraculous circumstances of the birth of John the Baptist to the barren, aging Elizabeth. Her husband, Zachariah (Zakariya), was struck dumb when an angel delivered the message he was to be a father.[15]

Surah: 21:89-90 “And (remember) Zakariya, when he cried to his Lord… So We listened to him: and We granted him Yahya: We cured his wife’s (Barrenness) for him.

Shockingly, one of the four Quran references provides common ground with Judaism and Christianity. John the Baptist is placed in the same named company of revered Godly Jewish leaders Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Noah, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses, Aaron and…Jesus.[17]

Judaism, Islam and Christian, intense opponents of each other’s beliefs, by virtue of their common agreement establish a fact of truth that John the Baptist was a real historical figure sent by God. Does his fact then validate the truthfulness of the Gospels and their accounts about Jesus of Nazareth?


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REFERENCES:

[1] Mark 1:2-4. NetBible.org. Footnotes #5, #7. <http://classic.net.bible.org/bible.php?book=Mar&chapter=1>
[2] John 1:1-8.  NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSB. <http://classic.net.bible.org/bible.php?book=Joh&chapter=1>
[3] “New Testament.” Jewish Encyclopedia. 2011. <http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11498-new-testament> CR Singer, Isidore; Adler, Cyrus, et. al.  The Jewish Encyclopedia. Volume 9. 1912. “Luke.” p 251.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=lfoOtGOcIBYC&lpg=PA594&ots=6qoCfVVUz7&dq=wave%20sheaf%20encyclopedia&pg=PA594#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[4] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Trans. and commentary. William Whitson. The Complete Works of Josephus. Book XVIII, Chapter V.2. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>
[5] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter V.1
[6] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter V.4.
[7] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter V.1.
[8] Luke 8:3.
[9] Matthew 14:1-12; Mark 6:17-29.  CR Luke 9:7-9; John 3:24. Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter V.4.
[10] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter V.2.
[11] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter V.2; Book VIII, Chapter XII.3.  Josephus, Flavius. The Life of Flavius Josephus. #22. Trans. and Commentary. William Whitson. The Complete Works of Josephus.  <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Book V, Chapter IX.4; Book VI, Chapter 2.1. Trans. and commentary. William Whitson. The Complete Works of Josephus. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  CR Josephus. Antiquities. Book III, Chapter I.5; Book IV, Chapter III.14, Chapter VIII.2; Book VI, Chapters II.3, III.4; Book VII, Chapter XII.3; Chapter XIII.8.
[12] Maimonides, Moses. Sefaria.org. Mishna Torah, Repentance 1. <https://www.sefaria.org/Mishneh_Torah%2C_Repentance.1?lang=bi> “Teshuvah, or Repentance.” MyJewishLearning.com. 2020. <https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/repentance>
[13] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter V.2.
[14] Quran. Surah 3:39; 19:13-14.
[15] Luke 1:8-25. Quran. Surah: 3:38-41; 19:2-6; 21:89-91.
[16] Quran. Surah: 6:84-86.

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