Mark vs Josephus on John the Baptist
Mark 6:17-29 For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife: for he had married her. For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife. Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not: For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly. And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee; And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom. And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist. And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist. And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath's sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her. And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison, And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother. And when his disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb.
Josephus Antiquities 18.5.2 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.

With these two passages we have an instance in which the NT and a secular writer record their take on the same event -- and a seeming gold mine for the critics. Here are the issues typically brought up, and our replies.

We will not offer the answer, seemingly imagined by critics, as to whether Josephus may have been the one in error; Hoehner [Herod Antipas, 122] notes that one Josephan scholar at least thinks that Josephus' source was a "high priest's notice," or else that the style indicates that it was one of Josephus scribes that did this section. In any case, we will assume for argument's sake that Josephus is 100% right in what he reports.

Josephus places John's execution in 35 AD -- way too late for what the Gospels report.

This objection contains an assumption, namely, that because Josephus reports the war with Aretas right after he records the execution of John, that this means that he is reporting that the war took place soon after the execution. But this assumption is gratuitous, and as Hoehner points out [126n], "The Jews felt that God's revenge did not always occur immediately at the time of the misdeed..."

The death of Antiochus was regarded as a judgment for his profanation of the Temple, though he died three years after the event; Pompey died in 48 BC, 15 years after he profaned the Holy of Holies, but it was still regarded as a judgment for that act (Jos. Ant. 14.71-2; Ps. Sol. 2:30-5), and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 was thought by some to be a judgment for the execution of a high priest who lived in the 50s (Jos. Ant. 20.160-7).

Mark 6:14 refers to Herod Antipas as a "king." This is an incorrect title.

Technically the title may be incorrect -- it may reflect popular rather than technical usage. This has a precedent: Hyrcanus II was called an ethnarch by Rome, but a "king" by the Jews. [Hoehner, 150]

It is also possible that this is not an error, or popular usage, but choice sarcasm. Witherington in his Markan commentary [213] notes that Herod Antipas "had pretensions to be a king, [and] it was precisely the request to be called king by Rome and everyone else, the request for the title, that eventually got him sent into exile in 39 [AD] by a paranoid Caligula."

Mark, and we may suggest those who shared this story, are having an ironic laugh at Herod Antipas' expense.

Mark 6:17 says that Antipas married the wife of his brother Philip. Josephus (Antiquities. 18.5.4) says she was the wife of a different brother.

Actually, all that Josephus says is that Antipas' wife Herodias was stolen from a "Herod." All of the Herod dynasts had second names (Herod Antipas, Herod Archaeleus, Herod Agrippa, etc.) but Josephus doesn't say what the second name of this Herod was. Critics simply assume that Mark has confused this Herod with a different Herod named Philip.

But in fact there is no evidence that Mark has done this, and no reason to suppose that there was not more than one Herod Philip that Mark is referring to. Indeed, if this were anything but the NT at issue, Mark's story would be taken as evidence that there was a second Philip, and be grounds for speculation that one was named after the other.

The two Herod Philips would have been born to different mothers, of course; Hoehner notes [134] that the Herod family already had one such situation with Antipater and Antipas [the latter is a diminutive of Antipater], and adds the such dual naming was "not infrequent in Hellenistic times" [135].

Josephus places the party at Macharerus, while Mark places it in Tiberias.

Mark does not say that the party was at Tiberias -- he doesn't say anything about where it is at all. What is at work here is an assumption by the critics that, because Mark lists all these folks who came to Herod's party, and there must only have been room for all these folks at Herod's palace in Tiberias, that therefore, Mark thinks that the party was at Tiberias. From here critics will ask questions like, "Did Mark not know how far it was from Tiberias to John's prison?"

By itself it may be responded that even such a suggestion collapses history down to too few dimensions. What of it if the party was at Tiberias, and John 100 miles away? How about supposing that Herod had John's head brought where the party was, by a fast horse? Or maybe all that Herod needed to do was make the pledge in front of his party? (Where does it say that John's head was brought to the party, anyway, and not just to Herodias after the fact?)

But in fact, the best solution is simply that the party was at Macharerus -- and the archaeological evidence lends credence to this idea. Gundry notes in his Markan commentary [313ff] that while Macharerus was a prison, it was also a palace, which had two dining rooms -- one large, the other small. This fits rather interestingly with Mark's story which would indicate that Herod and his wife were in different rooms throughout the episode -- and also rather interestingly, none of Herod's other palaces (as at Tiberias) share this feature.

Lest anyone object that a prison is still an odd place to have a party -- well, the dining rooms are there, and Herod once held a party on a bridge over the Euphrates River. This was not a man who necessarily cared about the comfort and convenience of his guests.

And finally:

Josephus ascribes John's execution to political motives; Mark makes it part of a love triangle.

Historical data shows us, though, how these motives actually dovetail cleanly into each other. Guelich, in his commentary on Mark 1-8:26 [331], notes that "[i]n order to make room for Herodias, Herod had sent his first wife, the daughter of Aretas IV, king of neighboring Nabatea, home. Aretas, taking this act as a personal slight, made war with Herod..."

Now add to this a little matter of John's preaching about a coming Messiah (a rival to the Herods) at a locale along the Jordan -- the border with Nabatea. John sets himself up to offend Herodias and Herod in one stroke: By preaching against Herod's marriage (a violation of Lev. 18:13, and also considered an honor challenge to the family of the former wife -- Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social-Science commentary, 121), and previous sending away of the Nabatean princess, John is essentially taking the side of Aretas and committing sedition.

What Mark and Josephus tell us is complimentary, not contradictory.

Finally, we can address two objections extraneous of Josephus:

There is no way Herod would have his stepdaughter do a lusty dance before all those men.

Such a judgment would be incautious at best -- Brooks notes in his Markan commentary [106] that the depravity of the Herodian family was well-documented. Add to that that Herod was likely drunk, and the machinations of Herodias, and you have a fine recipe for moral depravity on a high scale.

On the other hand, it could just be that the critics are the ones with a "dirty mind" -- there is nothing in Mark to suggest a dance with sexual overtones, and Hoehner notes [157] that "Jewish literature reveal sthat there were several kinds of dancing, and that it could be a perfectly respectable exercise in which eminently respectable people took part."

How could Herod pledge half his kingdom? That's obviously ridiculous, and it wasn't really his kingdom to give away -- it was Rome's.

From here some suggest a copying (fictionalizing) of Esther. But there is no need for this: the "extravagant offer of an Oriental potentate excited by wine" [Hoehner, 150] would not likely be meant to be taken seriously anyway. Certainly the girl didn't take it seriously, and nor for that matter did Esther. In fact, both statements are likely reflective of a proverbial pledge: "to offer a half of one's possessions was a favorite expression." (1 Kings 13:8, Luke 19:8) It simply meant that the person was exceedingly grateful and wished to bestow a generous reward.

-JPH