Not many things make it into all four Gospels. In fact, the Gospel of John usually includes material that isn’t found in Matthew, Mark or Luke. John the Baptist happens to be one person who is mentioned in all four, and yet despite this coverage, we still don’t know a lot about this mysterious figure. This is where looking “behind the Bible” may help fill in our picture of John.
In the 1940s, we found the Dead Sea Scrolls in the desert caves in Qumran. These scrolls were the writings of a Jewish desert community that flourished during Jesus’ lifetime. Scholars have noted several intriguing parallels between John the Baptist and the Qumran community. For example, both practiced asceticism and separated themselves from Jerusalem. John’s unusual diet of locust and honey would have been allowed at Qumran.
Qumran was also a priestly community, and John came from a priestly family. Both emphasized ritual washings and saw the desert as a place of preparation. Even more intriguing, John’s journey into the desert took place only a few miles from Qumran. Was John part of the Qumran community? As tantalizing as these parallels are, we really don’t know. They’re not definitive.
Another extra-biblical source that sheds light on John is the first century Jewish historian, Josephus, who wrote the following about John:
“[John the Baptist]… 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 … Now, when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were 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 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 should 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 against him” (Antiquities, 18, 116-119).
Josephus and the Gospels dovetail nicely because they both look at John’s death from two different perspectives. The Gospels recount John’s death from John’s perspective. John preached that Herod Antipas’ marriage to Herodias, his half-brother’s wife, was unlawful (Mark 6:18). Leviticus forbids such marriages while the brother is still alive (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21). The Gospels tells us that Herod did not kill John because he feared the crowds who knew John to be a righteous man (Mark 6:19-20).
Josephus looks at the same event from a political angle. Herod feared that John had too much influence over his followers and so he killed him before any trouble could start. But Josephus’ account alone doesn’t make sense. It’s not good policy to kill off people of good reputation just because they’re popular or influential. Herod had to have seen John as a personal threat, and that is exactly what the Gospels supply. John was preaching against Herod’s marriage, and because (as Josephus notes) John had an enormous influence over his followers because of his righteousness, Herod had to stop John before the crowd turned on him. Herodias’ prompting sealed John’s fate.
Both the Gospels and Josephus have an important lesson to teach us about holiness. John had nothing. He was poor. He didn’t have luxurious clothing or live in a royal palace like Herod (Matthew 11:8, Luke 7:25-26), yet even the mighty Herod Antipas feared him. Why? Because he lived fully and faithfully to God’s will, even to the point of speaking out publically against unrighteous actions.
The crowds followed John because of his spiritual integrity. He followed God both in and out of season. For this reason, John the Baptist’s life is praised throughout history in the four Gospels and even by Josephus.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.