I recently had the opportunity to record an episode of Unbelievable? with Justin Brierley (it’s airing this Saturday, August 24th2013). He invited two skeptics to join us and discuss apparent contradictions in the history offered by the Gospel authors when compared to non-Christian historians. One skeptic, with a heavy accent from the Netherlands, offered an objection related to the account of the beheading of John the Baptist. Although I had difficulty hearing and understanding his words through the telephone connection and his accent, his argument can be summed up succinctly: Josephus records the death of John the Baptist at a time in history that appears to be around 36AD, six years after the date commonly accepted for the crucifixion of Jesus. If Josephus’ record is accurate, John was executed after the Resurrection of Jesus, and the gospel accounts are wrong. This objection, along with an objection about the role and dating of Quirinius in the Gospel of Luke, formed the basis for his skepticism toward the Gospel accounts.
While I had difficulty hearing and understanding the precise dating elements the caller referenced in his objection, I was certainly familiar enough with the nature of the complaint and the overarching principles I would use to test the testimony of Josephus against the testimony of Matthew (14:1-12) and Mark (6:14-29). I’ve written about these concepts related to eyewitness reliability in my book, Cold-Case Christianity, and it’s important to employ these principles to avoid stumbling over apparently contradictory minutia:
Principle One: Make Sure the Witnesses Were Present in the First Place
While Mark and Matthew (or at least the authors of their Gospels if you’re inclined to deny the traditional attributions) lived during the time of John’s execution, Josephus did not. Most scholars place Josephus’ birth at 37AD and date his testimony related to John the Baptist (as it is recorded in Antiquities of the Jews) at 93-94AD. There is good reason to believe Mark’s Gospel is the earliest narrative of these events and was written within 20 years of John’s execution; the case for the early dating of Mark’s text is cumulative and compelling. Mark’s account was, therefore, available to the early Christian and non-Christian observers of the life of Jesus. The first consideration for eyewitness reliability is simply proximity to the event. Were the witnesses truly present to see what they said they saw? Just as importantly, was the account available early enough in history to be fact checked by other contemporaries? In this case, we are comparing two accounts from the time of the event to one account written one generation after the event.
Principle Two: Try to Find Some Corroboration for the Claims of the Witnesses
Historical accounts (like accounts from cold-case homicide witnesses) can be verified in a variety of ways. Sometimes we use physical evidence external to the account (like archaeological discoveries) and sometimes we use the testimony of other witnesses. In this case, we have only three accounts from antiquity confirming the events surrounding John’s execution: the account from Mark, the account from Matthew and the account from Josephus. A careful reading of Matthew and Mark’s gospel reveals distinct idiosyncrasies in each account. Both authors reference the same set of facts (and are obviously familiar with each other’s claims), but express variations well within the range we would expect from two eyewitnesses. When skeptics favor Josephus’ lone account against the two accounts in the Biblical text, they simply expose their bias against the Christian narratives.
Principle Three: Examine the Consistency and Accuracy of the Witnesses
Accuracy and consistency are another important aspect of eyewitness reliability. If we’re going to use Josephus’ lone record to discredit the gospel accounts, we need to at least be fair about assessing Josephus’ precision and uniformity. Josephus’ historical record is, unfortunately, uneven and sometimes self-contradictory. Josephus often cites the Old Testament Biblical record as part of historical account, but he frequently cites this Biblical history inaccurately. In addition, while Josephus is detailed in his chronological information in some places, he is inconsistent or silent in providing information from the reign of Archelaus through the time of Pilate (4BC-26AD). More importantly, Josephus contradicts himself repeatedly related to the dating of Herod’s reign, setting the beginning of Herod’s rule in 36, 37, 38 or 41BC, depending on which of Josephus’ volumes or passages one examines. Part of the problem (especially when compared with the Gospel accounts) is the utter absence of any ancient copy of Josephus’ original work. There are no surviving extant manuscripts of Josephus’ histories prior to the 11th century. In fact, there are only approximately 120 ancient manuscripts of Josephus’ work and only 33 predate the 14th century. Compared to the rich abundance of ancient copies of the gospels, the work of Josephus is not well attested and difficult to cross-check for consistency and transmissional accuracy.
Principle Four: Examine the Presence of Bias on the Part of the Witnesses
Skeptics often claim we can’t trust the gospel authors because they were Christians and were biased in favor of presenting Jesus in a certain way. I’ve written about this in Cold Case Christianity and demonstrated the difference between a presuppositional bias and a conviction based on observation, but even if the Gospel authors were biased in some way, what advantage does their version of John’s execution give them? As I often say, there are only three motives behind any lie (financial greed, or sexual lust/relational desire). Which of these motives would cause the gospel authors to lie about their version of the events, particularly when these accounts would be circulating within the first generation of citizens who knew how and when John was executed?
In trying to evaluate which ancient historical account (Matthew, Mark or Josephus) is accurate, I simply apply the four dimensional template I’ve just described. This is the same template we use in criminal trials, and it clearly favors the Gospel accounts over the account from Josephus. But let’s assume the very worst here as a skeptical precaution. What if Mark and Matthew are both wrong about the facts related to the execution of John the Baptist? Would this necessarily disqualify their account entirely? No. I’ve never had a witness in a case who was entirely inerrant, and judges, in fact, admonish jurors to be careful not to disqualify a witness simply because he or she might be wrong about a particular detail. While I believe the Gospel autographs to be inerrant, the bar for witness reliability is actually much lower. We don’t discredit the entire record of Josephus simply because he was wrong about Old Testament Biblical history, the dating of Herod’s reign or the execution of John. We ought to afford the Biblical gospel authors the same benefit of the doubt.