Several reasons exist for why we should trust the Gospels. Their eye-witness testimony, familiarity with the Palestinian world, embarrassing nature, early dating, and undesigned coincidences, all suggest that the Gospels are reliable documents. Beyond that, the plethora of Greek manuscripts and strong evidence that the text hasn’t changed give us even more confidence to trust these works.
Yet there’s another angle that makes the case even stronger — corroborating evidence. That is to say, non-biblical sources also testify to individuals or events contained in the Gospels, and thus corroborate what the Gospel writers report. Perhaps the most popular corroborating source is the first-century Jewish historian Josephus.
John the Baptist the Forerunner
John the Baptist is familiar to readers of the Gospels. Though he prepared the way for Jesus’ public ministry, he’s known primarily for baptizing the people as a sign of their repentance. Mark 1:4-5 states:
And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
John the Baptist the Preacher of Justice
Like most prophets, John warned the people of God’s judgment if they didn’t change their ways. We read further in Luke 3:10-14:
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely — be content with your pay.”
John’s message was straight-forward. Repent of your sins. And this repentance will manifest itself in how you love your fellow neighbor. Be generous, compassionate, and fair with everyone. In other words, love your neighbor as yourself.
Despite John’s popularity, Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee (4 B.C.-A.D. 39), arrested, and subsequently, beheaded him. We read in Mark 6:16-18:
But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” For Herod, himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
Notice why Herod arrested John the Baptist and then later had him beheaded. John was publicly critical of Herod’s divorce and remarriage to his brother’s ex-wife Herodias — an action that violated Israel’s law.
John the Baptist in Josephus
What the Gospels don’t tell us is that Herod Antipas’ decision to divorce his first wife led to increased tensions between Galilee and the region Nabatea to the east. You see, Herod divorced the king of Nabatea’s daughter in order to marry Herodias.
When the king of Nabatea, Aretus IV, attacked and defeated Herod’s army, the people of Galilee believed it was God’s judgment on Herod for how he treated John. Read Josephus’ account:
Now it seemed to some of the Jews that the destruction of Herod’s army was by God, and was certainly well deserved, on account of what he did to John, called the Baptist. For Herod had executed him, though he was a good man and had urged the Jews — if inclined to exercise virtue, to practice justice toward one another and piety toward God — to join in baptism. For baptizing was acceptable to him, not for a pardon of whatever sins they may have committed, but in purifying the body, as though the soul had beforehand been cleansed in righteousness. And when others gathered (for they were greatly moved by his words), Herod, fearing that John’s great influence over the people might result in some form of insurrection (for it seemed that they did everything by his counsel), thought it much better to put him to death before his work led to an uprising than to await a disturbance, become involved in a problem, and have second thoughts. So the prisoner, because of Herod’s suspicion, was sent to Machaerus, the stronghold previously mentioned, and there was executed. But to the Jews, it seemed a vindication of John that God willed to do Herod an evil, in the destruction of the army.1
Josephus on the Herodias Marriage
Josephus also tells us of Herod’s marriage to Herodias:
But Herodias, their sister, was married to Herod (Philip), the son of Herod the Great, a child of Mariamne, daughter of Simon, the high priest; and to them was born Salome. After her birth, Herodias, thinking to violate the ways of the fathers, abandoned a living husband and married Herod (Antipas) — who was tetrarch of Galilee — her husband’s brother by the same father.2
Notice how much Josephus corroborates what the Gospels say about John the Baptist:
* Josephus says John “inclined the Jews to exercise virtue and to practice justice toward one another.”
* The Gospels say John exhorted the Jews to share their clothing and money with one another, not to extort money from others, and not to accuse others falsely (Lk. 3:10-14).
* Josephus says John baptized many Jews as a sign of repentance.
* The Gospels also report that John baptized many Jews as a sign of repentance (Mk. 1:4-5).
* Josephus states that Herod arrested John the Baptist.
* The Gospels likewise report that Herod arrested John the Baptist (Mk. 6:16-18).
* Josephus declares that Herodias left Philip and married his brother Herod Antipas.
* The Gospels report that Herod divorced his wife and married his brother Philip’s wife Herodias (Mk. 6:16-18).
* Josephus reports that Herod had John the Baptist executed.
* The Gospels state that Herod had John the Baptist beheaded (Mk. 6:16-18).
We Can Trust the Gospels
Josephus’ emphasis on John’s death is purely political. He insinuates that Herod had him executed because he feared a rebellion. And during this critical time, when his people were at war, he needed everyone unified.
Yet Josephus doesn’t tell us why he wanted John dead in the first place. After all, Josephus only tells us that John exhorted the people of Israel to act justly toward their fellow neighbors. Why would the king want to stop that message from spreading?
The Gospel accounts give us further clarification. They tell us that John publicly rebuked the king for his unlawful divorce and remarriage, and thus, Herod dealt harshly with him.
The corroboration between Josephus and the Gospels with respect to John the Baptist and the marriage fiasco between Herod and Herodias should give us greater confidence to trust the Gospels. For if the Gospel writers were careful to get John’s story right, how much more would they be careful to get Jesus’ story, right?
Ryan Leasure holds an M.A. from Furman University and an M.Div. from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He currently serves as a pastor at Grace Bible Church in Moore, SC.
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