Josephus on John the Baptist and
Other Jewish Prophets
Craig A. Evans
The writings of Josephus (ca. 37–100? CE) are probably the most important writings outside of the Bible itself for understanding the world of early Christianity. Four of his works survive: Jewish War (seven volumes), Antiquities of the Jews (twenty volumes), Against Apion (two volumes), and Life (one volume). In these works we hear of Pharisees and Sadducees, of scribes and priests (including Annas and Caiaphas), of familiar rulers and political figures, such as Herod, Pontius Pilate, and Agrippa. Many of the very places mentioned in the New Testament are found in the narratives of Josephus, including Galilee, Caesarea, Jericho, the Mount of Olives, and, of course, Jerusalem. Josephus has much to say about the Temple, about Israel's biblical and postbiblical history, and about various nationalities and ethnic groups, such as Greeks, Romans, Nabateans, and Samaritans. In a few places, Josephus actually mentions figures who play an important role in the founding of the Christian movement. These include Jesus, his brother James, and John the Baptist.
Although scholars from time to time have expressed doubts about the authenticity of Josephus's accounts of Jesus (Ant. 18.63–64) and James (Ant. 20. 200–201), his account of the preaching and death of John the Baptist is widely accepted as authentic. Most scholars believe that this account is independent of the tradition found in the New Testament Gospels. What Josephus says about John is important not only because it offers us an independent perspective but also because it places John into a broader political and historical context. Part of this broader context involves other public figures who attracted crowds and ran afoul of the authorities. Review of the activities of these figures helps us understand better the political tensions and religious hopes of the Jewish people in late antiquity, again clarifying the context in which Jews lived and Christianity emerged.