Violent Disciples of John the Baptist?

Yesterday on Facebook a friend of mine asked a question that led to a good discussion which I am trying to preserve here for those not connected to me on Facebook and/or to jog my own memory later. This was his question:

Were the Baptizer’s disciples known for their violence or extreme loyalty, in the same way as the Sicarii or Zealots? I was just re-reading Luke 20:2-8 and noticed for the first time that the scribes and Pharisees fear that the Baptizer’s followers will stone them. I think there might be an interesting historical study in sectarian violence in there somewhere.

My response, edited for clarity:

We lack material, but Luke’s account is interesting in light of Josephus in Ant. 18 because he claims Herod killed Josephus because he feared that the people would do whatever he wished, which seems to hint at a fear of uprising. Whether Herod’s fear was justified seems unknowable, but both Josephus and Luke indicate that slandering John was serious enough to result in violence! Also, John’s baptismal activity in the Jordan, possibly on the side of Perea, may indicate that some interpreted John’s actions as being Joshua-esque, preparing to re-invade the Promised Land. Josephus does tell of another figure who does this very thing later, but he is squashed by Antipas.* Furthermore, The rebuke where John says God can make a new people of “these stones” has been read by some as pointing to the memorial in the Jordan created by Joshua, so that may be another hint that we have an invasion motif associated with John.

Another friend remarked that John's activities around the border seem to have been an important matter. I agree and I responded:

Also, his message about the coming one (whoever that may be!) seems disruptive. If the gospels are to be trusted that he’s been rebuking Antipas’ marriage to Philip’s sister, and I think they are, then he is undermining Antipas in the eyes of the people while at the same time speaking of someone who will come to judge, purge, baptize. There is a lot at stake there politically. He’s like a Qumranite who actively recruits!

This friend asked whether or not this suggested that someone would come to usurp Antipas. I responded:

It has the potential to be interpreted that way. I wish we knew more about his message. I think what we find in Josephus and the gospels indicates the gist of what he said, so that we know his central theme, but we don’t much else about it unless we trust Luke’s account where people ask him to specify what sort of ethical behavior is required of them. Those specific accounts may not be historically verifiable, but they may point to something true about John as one whose sage wisdom was widely embraced by the people. I think Josephus’ depiction indicates the same thing. If so, then his message would seem to undermine Antipas’ rule. Also, as Robert Webb has argued, “To those who perceive themselves to be powerless and unjustly treated, John’s ethical demand could imply a radical change in the socio-political status quo, producing a society in which John’s ethical demand could be lived out: a society manifesting ‘justice toward one another.’ That same ethical demand would be perceived as a threat to the status quo of those who held power in the current imperialist regime. Furthermore, John’s message called his audience ‘to gather together by baptism,’ and the gathering together of discontented, excited people is usually perceived as a threat by governments (ancient as well as modern).” (John the Baptizer and Prophet, p. 37) Furthermore, I highly recommend T.S. Ferda’s article “John the Baptist, Isaiah 40, and the Ingathering of Exiles” ( He argues that John’s actions were interpreted as gathering the exiles, which is sort of a new Exodus, so that’s another possible hint that John’s actions were being interpreted as insurrection.

* I had forgotten if it was by Rome or by Antipas. My friend Tyler Tully reminded me that it was by Antipas. I've written about it here.