Josephus' Account of the Murder of
John the Baptist
|The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus was
born in about 37 AD in Jerusalem, right about the time Jesus is alleged to
have died, and died in about 101 AD. Among his writings are the seven-book,
Jewish War, which are his memoranda made between 66 AD and 73 AD during
the Jewish war of independence, and the Jewish Antiquities, which
was the entire history of Jews from the Creation to the revolt in 66
The following is Josephus's account of Herod taking up with his brother's
wife, and the apparently unrelated order by Herod of the political
assassination of John the Baptist:
[When Herod was in] Rome...he fell in love with
[his brother's] wife, Herodias...an agreement was made for her to change
Herod...feared...the great influence John had
over the people...Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over
the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a
rebellion...thought it best [to put] him to death, to prevent any mischief
cause and not bring himself into difficulties
Accordingly [John] was sent a prisoner.....to Macherus, the castle ....and
was there put to death.
The reader will see below that Mark, the earliest
gospel writer, reports that Herodias ordered that John be beheaded, and that
Herodias's daughter carried John's head to her mother on a platter. How
could Josephus have overlooked these sensational
Mark's Account of the Murder of
John the Baptist
|Jesus left there and went
to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples.... Then Jesus went around
teaching from village to village...They drove out many demons and anointed
many sick people with oil and healed
King Herod heard about this,
for Jesus' name had become well known. Some were saying, "John the Baptist
has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work
in him."....But when Herod heard this, he said, "John, the man 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'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." So Herodias nursed
a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because
Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy
man...Finally the opportune time came.
Mark Writing his
|On his birthday Herod gave
a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading
men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased
Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, "Ask me for anything
you want, and I'll give it to you." And he promised her with an oath, "Whatever
you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom."
She went out and said to her
mother, "What shall I ask for?" "The head of John the Baptist," she answered.
At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: "I want you to
give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter."
Herodias' Daughter Dances for
Herodias' Feast, by Aretino
| The king was greatly
distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want
to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring
John's head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back
his head on a platter. He presented it to
the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John's disciples
came and took his
body and laid it in a tomb.
Mark's Account Differs from
| There's quite a difference between the accounts
of John's death as reported by Josephus, the greatest Jewish historian of
the first century, and Mark, a person whose identity is unknown even today.
come Josephus thought that Herod had John killed because he was a political
threat, but Mark "knew" otherwise--that John was murdered because Herod's
wife was angry with John for opposing the affair?
didn't Josephus report that it was Herod's wife who ordered the murder of
John, if that's really what happened?
why didn't Josephus report that John's head was sent to Herod on a platter
carried by his mistress's daughter? The matter of the head on the platter
is extraordinary enough, but having a girl carrying it to her mother is
exceptional. One would have thought that these events would have been reported
by Josephus--if they really occurred. The distinctive nature of this
comparison to Homer's tale is made all the more striking when one observes
that in no other place in the New Testament is a "daughter" named in an event
in which violence occurs.
Josephus's voluminous work is filled with far
more mundane descriptions, so one cannot argue that he thought these events
were unworthy of being reported. Sensational events such as the ones
described by Mark are unlikely to have escaped the notice of the average
person on the street, let alone a historian of Josephus's thoroughness, so
he would have reported them if they had occurred. Since He didn't report
them, we conclude they didn't occur.
Below, I will present an abbreviated version
of Homer's tale of Clytemnestra plotting with her lover to kill her husband,
King Agamemnon. In that story, Homer has Clytemnestra's lover slaying
the king with a sword. Then, I will show evidence that indicates that the
original tale evolved into the traditional one in which Clytemnestra uses
an axe to lop off her husband's head.
Homer's Story of the Murder of King
|While Agamemnon was] fighting hard at Troy
cajoled Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra with incessant
.. she went willingly enough to the house of Aegisthus.
[When Agamemnon returned, Aegisthus] invited him to the feast, but
he meant foul play. He got him there, all unsuspicious of the doom that was
awaiting him, and killed him when the banquet was over as though he were
butchering an ox in the shambles
[Odysseus meets ghost of Agamemnon, who tells
what happened:] . 'How did you come by your death,' said I, 'King Agamemnon?
..."'Ulysses,' he answered, ...Aegisthus and my wicked wife were the death
of me between them. He asked me to his house, feasted me, and then butchered
me most miserably as though I were a fat beast in a slaughter house, while
all around me my comrades were slain like sheep or pigs for the wedding
breakfast, or picnic, or gorgeous banquet of some great nobleman. You must
have seen numbers of men killed either in a general engagement, or in single
combat, but you never saw anything so truly pitiable as the way in which
we fell in that cloister, with the mixing-bowl and the loaded tables lying
all about, and the ground reeking with our blood. I heard Priam's daughter
Cassandra scream as Clytemnestra killed her close beside
me....The Odyssey (Books 3, 4, and
Clytemnestra Evolves into Axe-Murderer
of Her Husband
|MacDonald notes that even though Homer doesn't
say that Clytemnestra joined in the physical act of killing her husband,
eventually the tale in the telling and retelling evolved into one in which
Clytemnestra herself uses an axe to behead her husband.
Ancient artists made
Clytemnestra's ax a standard feature of her iconography. Frequently one finds
her about to strike Agamemnon on the head or neck as Aegisthus is about to
pierce him with a sword. (p.
Lucius Seneca (4 BC - AD 65), the Roman philosopher
and writer, for example, wrote of Clytemenestra "in mad rage" swinging the
axe at her husband's neck, the result of which was "blood [streaming] o'er
his headless trunk." (In Agamemnon.)
Clytemnestra Slaying Cassandra
(ca 430 BC)
Thus, as far as Mark and his contemporaries were
concerned, Clytemnestra beheaded her husband with an axe, even though Homer
didn't say so. It is upon this tradition that Mark may have built his Jesus
Remarkable Parallels Between
Homer and Mark
| Evidence that Mark borrowed the traditional
mythological tale about Clytemnestra slaying her husband to create a fictional
account of the murder of John the Baptist is summarized in the table below.
A few of the points of comparison MacDonald noted have been omitted
because I thought they were weak, and a few have been added. Before
showing the parallels, I want to note a point of disagreement I have with
MacDonald notes that imitations of Homer were
commonplace in Mark's time, and that emulation (aemulatio, rivalry)
was the "most sophisticated form of ancient imitation." These emulations
often made the object of imitation evident to the reader, but at the same
time the author would have the imitation be better in some sense.
MacDonald sees emulation in this story
where it probably wasn't intended, I think. He believes that Mark has John
emulate King Agamemnon, who deserved part of what he got, but John was guiltless,
and therefore, a better victim. I believe this is too much of a stretch;
I think the emulation occurs between Jesus and John, not between John and
Agamemnon. The apparent message in Mark's Jesus parable is that just as John
was believed to have miraculous powers and was killed because of it, then
was believed to have risen from the grave, so it will be with Jesus: he
will be thought to have miraculous powers, will be killed because of them,
and will rise from his grave.
Jesus is better than John because the warning
signs pointing to his impending doom are painted far more vividly than they
were for John; John might have run away if he'd known what was likely to
happen to him--we'll never know, but Jesus, after hearing of John's murder
by Herod, fearlessly stays the course, knowing he would soon be
Summary of the
|King and his male relative
are part of love triangle.
||King Agamemnon's wife,
Clytemnestra, has affair with his cousin.
||King Herod has
affair with Herodias, his brother's wife.
|A man is a threat to
||The king is about to
||John the Baptist opposes
|Man who is a threat
|Murder occurs during
||Murder occurs at the
||Murder occurs during
|Attendance by influential
persons is mentioned.
||"banquet of some great
for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of
|Mistress plays active
role in beheading.
does the beheading [tradition].
||Wife (Herodias) orders
|Victim's head is in
contact with tableware
||King's head lands among
the mixing bowls.
||John's head is placed
on a platter.
|A "daughter" plays a
role in the beheading.
||Daughter of a
king1 is killed at beheading.
||Daughter of king's mistress
carries John's head.
|Author has a person
specifically referred to as a "daughter" play active role in violence only
once in entire text.
||This is the only time
in The Odyssey that
a "daughter" is directly involved in violence.
||This is the only time
in the entire New Testament that a "daughter" is directly involved in
|Author uses murder to
signal danger faced by hero.
||The hero, Odysseus,
notes danger, travels in disguise.
||The hero, Jesus, notes
danger, but ignores it; this shows the reader that he is more fearless than
Odysseus, which is the principal message of Mark's
 King Priam