A week ago I quoted what the Jewish historian Josephus said about John the Baptist (see “Josephus on John the Baptist”). In Josephus’ account John is much more an ethicist with a political message than a prophet with an eschatological message as the Evangelist portray him. Why?

In the book The Historical Jesus in Context (2006) edited by Amy-Jill Levine, Dale C. Allison Jr., and J.D. Crossan there is a chapter written by Craig Evans titled “Josephus on John the Baptist and Other Jewish Prophets of Deliverance”. In this essay Evans says, “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.” (p. 55) This “broader context” provided by Josephus doesn’t focus on what John means in light of Jesus, but what John means in light of Josephus’ interpretation of Israel’s recent history. Since Rome had squashed the Jewish revolt before Josephus wrote his history it was Josephus’ goal to explain the Jews to a Roman audience. Josephus was writing under the assumption that Israel’s God had chosen Rome.

To explain John to this audience he does not focus so much on how John looks back to the prophets and Israel’s history as much as how he fits into a Roman worldview. According to Evans, “Josephus’s portrait of John as ethicist probably is colored by a desire to portray the Baptist in Greco-Roman philosophical dress. But the portrait may not be wholly fictional, for in Luke’s Gospel (3:10-14) we are told that John urged people to live just lives.” (p. 56)

So while Evangelist like Luke do show John as being concerned with justice, Josephus’ way of communicating this is different. Luke would see John as part of the line of the prophets, as would Matthew and Mark. Josephus knew this, but he was writing to the Romans in a way that want to by overly cautious to communicate Jewishness in Roman terminology.  Luke was writing to a Gentile audience as well, but he seems more balanced.