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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

John’s Imprisonment

William C. Duncan

From The Life, Character and Acts of John The Baptist, 1853

The evangelist John, as we have seen, has alone given us information respecting that part of the Baptist's ministry which was prosecuted after the public appearance of Christ. The other evangelists appear, on the other hand, to intimate that John was imprisoned by Herod immediately after the baptism of Jesus, and that it was this very act of violence which induced the latter to make his first journey, spoken of in John 1: 44. ff., into Galilee (cp. Matt. 4:12, Mark 1:14). In Luke (3:19, 20) the imprisonment of John is evidently mentioned only by way of anticipation because the writer wished to mention here at once and in connection all that he intended to say respecting the Baptist. That he did not intend to follow any historical order is made clear by the fact that he reverts, immediately after his observation respecting the imprisonment of the Baptist, to the baptism which he had performed on Christ, and relates nothing further regarding his subsequent fortunes and death.

With these representations, and especially with those given by Matthew and Mark, what the evangelist John relates to us in 3:23, 24, appears to come into direct conflict; that even after Christ had returned from his first journey into Galilee, John was still engaged in baptizing, and that Apostle even appears, by mentioning expressly that John was not yet cast into prison, to have intentionally forewarned his readers against the erroneous opinion to the contrary propagated by the other three evangelists. What, now, have we to think of this narrative, and how must we clear away the difficulty?

The easiest and most satisfactory expedient which we can adopt, is evidently to suppose that it was not the first journey to Galilee (John 1:44-ff), but the second (John 4:3) which was prompted by the imprisonment of the Baptist; in favor of which view in particular is the fact that John himself (4:1) assigns as the reason of this second journey the knowledge which Jesus had that the Pharisees had heard that he was making more disciples than the Baptist.

Wherefore could this be the ground of Christ's leaving so hastily those regions, if he did not think that he had reason to suspect some act of violence from the hands of the Pharisees; and on what could this fear have been more rationally based, than on the example of bold and violent despotism which he had before his eyes in the imprisonment of the Baptist? For the first journey to Galilee (John 1:44-ff), on the other hand, no such motive is assigned: Jesus appears to have gone thither at that time with the intention of giving the first proof of his divine power and glory to his friends and his near acquaintances in the land of his youth, and to collect here his first disciples, at a distance from the injurious influences of the Pharisees.

The narrative of John moves on in this chapter in such a manner, step by step as it were, after the fashion of a diary, that, since the imprisonment of John could not have been to him—he having been one of his disciples—of little importance, he must have made express mention of it, had it occurred at this time; instead of doing so, however, he speaks out in 3:24. expressly against this idea, and testifies that John still baptized in the Jordan at the same time with Jesus, after the latter had returned from Galilee and after the feast of the Passover had been finished at Jerusalem. (John 2:13-ff)

We are, therefore, obliged to suppose that the other three evangelists either knew nothing at all of the first journey into Galilee, together with the miracle that was wrought at the marriage in Cana, the return to Jerusalem to attend the Passover, and the expulsion of the sellers of merchandise from the temple and the conversation with Nicodemus which occurred in that city, or that they were not sufficiently acquainted with these events to give a narrative of them in their Gospels; and that, therefore, overleaping this period altogether, they began their representation of the ministry of Jesus with the second journey that he made into Galilee, which was occasioned by the imprisonment of the Baptist.

When we consider the form and nature of the Gospels — which are not by any means constructed upon the plan of registering with the greatest precision and scientific exactness, in its proper succession and chronological order, every single occurrence in the life of the Redeemer, but are meant to represent to us in bold outlines an exciting picture of his life and acts—this supposition is encompassed with the less difficulty; especially since Jesus was, at this early period in his ministry, but little known, and had but few Apostles, who either were for the most part first chosen upon, his second journey (cp. Matt. 4:18-22; Mark 1:16-20), or because now for the first time his constant attendants, and since this whole first journey to Galilee and back thence to Jerusalem and to the Jordan might have been accomplished within the space of a few weeks.

The imprisonment of the Baptist is narrated only incidentally by all three of the evangelists. Luke, as we have already seen, barely mentions the fact, and with it closes his account of the ministry of John before the public appearance of Jesus. Matthew and Mark, on the other hand, introduce the occurrence in connection with the course of their narrative respecting the labors and influence of Christ, while they are mentioning (Matt. 14:1, 2; Mark 6:14-16) the various opinions which were in circulation respecting the person of Jesus.

Among these opinions one was that Jesus was John risen from the dead, which, according to Matthew and Mark, Herod, who without doubt was reproved and stung by his conscience for the murder of a man whom he acknowledged to be just, himself expressed; but which, according to Luke, who also mentions these ideas respecting Jesus (9:7-9), was held only by the people, while Herod did not express himself so pointedly and definitely, but only wished to see him who had now a greater number of the people in attendance upon him than at an earlier period John had, in which desire it is quite likely that there was included a sort of wavering conjecture that Jesus might perhaps be the Baptist himself upraised from the dead.

On this occasion, then, when they make mention of the death of the Baptist, Matthew and Mark subjoin a supplementary notice respecting the motive of his imprisonment and execution, the latter evangelist, who appears to have had the most exact information on the subject, giving the narrative most at length. John passes over the fact in silence, because he takes it for granted as known to his readers from the accounts of the two evangelists who had written of it before his Gospel was published.

The following is given to us as the motive which prompted to his imprisonment: Herod the Great had by Aristobulus, one of his sons, a granddaughter named Herodias whom he gave in marriage to his son, her uncle, Herod Philip, who, destined at first to be his father's successor, but afterwards disinherited by him, remained a private man, whilst the other three sons of Herod, Archelaus, Herod Antipas (the person here mentioned by the evangelists), and Philip,—whose name was the same as that of his eldest brother, but who was probably distinguished from him by some other special appellation,—divided amongst themselves, as tetrarchs, the greater part of their father's kingdom (cp. Part III., Chap. I).

The ambitious and sensual Herodias, preferring a tetrarch to a private man for her husband, persuaded her uncle, Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, to put away his lawful wife, a daughter of Aretas, the Arabian king, and to marry her, the eloping and unfaithful wife of his brother. Such an incestuous union (cp. Lev. 18:16) and, according to Luke 3:9, at the same time many other wicked acts of Herod, John, the public preacher of repentance, could not let pass unreproved. He who had lifted up the voice of condemnation and warning against Pharisees and against members of the Sanhedrin, could not be deterred by fear from declaring freely and publicly that it was not right for Herod to have his brother's wife, and we may well suppose that he reproved this wickedness with by no means soft and honeyed words.

(This iniquitous proceeding of Herod's produced a war between him and his father-in-law, which, however, did not break out till a year before the death of Tiberius (in the year of Rome 790, A.D. 37). In this war Herod was totally defeated and his army cut to pieces by Aretas; a calamity which the Jews in general attributed to the vengeance of God, inflicted upon Herod on account of his treatment of the Baptist (Jos. Ant. 5. 1-3.))

We are not obliged to suppose that the Baptist went with this express intention to the palace of Herod—to such a work had he not been called, and we find no proof that it was his custom to interfere in this way with family affairs, or to seek out particular individuals for special reproof. There is no objection to our supposing, what is not so improbable that Herod travelling on some occasion in his own land in the neighborhood of John, had gone out of his way, together with his attendant escort, in order to see this remarkable man, and that on this opportunity the Baptist had addressed to him these unwelcome words of reproof.

We are not obliged, however, to resort to either of these conjectures, for it does not contradict our narrative, if John spoke only in a general way publicly before the people respecting this improper act of Herod's since what he said could not easily be kept concealed from the king. The direct form of the words, "it is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife", does, it is true, seem to indicate that the remark was made by John in person to Herod, but we are not compelled to press so strongly upon the expression, for the words might have been reported to Herod by a third person in that form which they would have taken if they had been addressed to him in person.

Mark represents the matter as if Herodias had been the chief agent in producing the imprisonment of the Baptist and the cause of the hastening of his execution, while Herod himself remained rather passive in the transaction, and in the hours of his better emotions even gladly listened to the discourses of John. Matthew, on the other hand, speaks of Herod as the prime author of his imprisonment, and as being eagerly desirous to put him to death as soon as possible thereafter.

We may readily conceive how an ambitious and sensual woman like Herodias, feeling herself wounded to the quick by the monitory reproaches of John, must, in the glowing bitterness of her hate, have sworn destruction against the man, and on that account have urged on her husband by all the arts of coquetry to throw the Baptist into prison, and, after she had obtained this request, have ceased not to seek his execution. Herod, the slave of sensuality, was no doubt often tempted by her and often incited by his own wishes to remove the bold reprover out of the way, as Matthew expressly informs us (v. 5); but the weak prince was constantly kept in check by the fear which he had of the people, who regarded John as a prophet, and who might have risen in insurrection at his cruel execution.

Add to this, moreover, that, whenever the seductive arts of Herodias had not drawn him within the circle of their influence, and he looked at the matter more fairly and with more consideration, his own better judgment which still preserved with him something of the feeling of right and wrong, spoke out in favor of John, he recognized in him a just and holy man, and often he did not hesitate to allow him the privilege of conversation, nay, he even sometimes listened to him as a counsellor. Thus vacillating between a just regard for John and the desire to oblige the blood-thirsty will of his wife, the weak man continued for a long time undecided, until at last the seductive arts of Herodias gained the victory.

The historian Josephus, when he relates this occurrence (Archæol. 18. 5. 2), assigns a different reason for the imprisonment of the Baptist. Herod was fearful lest John, since he had so many adherents among the people, might at length excite an insurrection, which he sought to prevent by putting him in confinement. We see at once, however, that this was only the nominal ground, the pretext which was given out in public, for, since he was obliged to assign to the people some reason for having thrown into prison a man so beloved by them and so revered as the Baptist, and since the true reason, the just judgment and reproof by John of the incestuous marriage of the prince, could not well be declared. Herod was compelled to seek for some other ground, be it tenable or not, in justification of his conduct; and fear of disturbance among the populace seemed to him the most welcome and the most likely to answer his end.

Guarding himself in this way against the anger of the people, Herod awaited a moment when John, who frequently went from one bank of the river Jordan to the other, was found in his territory in Perea, had him arrested and, as Josephus relates, brought to Machterus, a castle on the east side of the Dead Sea, in the southern part of Perea, where he, therefore, was himself probably residing at the time. At least, the Baptist must, according to the narratives of Matthew and Mark, have been kept imprisoned in the immediate neighborhood of Herod; and it is rendered the more probable that he was confined near the place of Herod's residence at the time by the fact that Antipas had a palace in the neighborhood (Jos. Bell. Jud. 2. 4. 2); not, however, as some think, because war was being waged at that time between Herod and Aretas, king of Arabia,—the former residing as near as possible to the boundaries of his territory on the side towards Arabia, in order that he might arrange and direct all things connected with the war the more readily in his own proper person,—for this war did not break out till after the execution of the Baptist.

The confinement of John could not have possibly been very rigid, since Herod had been induced to decide upon it contrary to his own better inclination, and, according to the testimony of Mark (5:20) took pleasure in conversing with him himself, and also, perhaps, on account of the people, who perchance would not have quietly endured a cruel incarceration of the honored Baptist, and whom Herod feared so much that he did not venture of his own will to complete his execution. Without question, therefore, we are at liberty to conclude that John still had free intercourse with his disciples, many of whom must indeed have followed him in his imprisonment.