On January 16, 2011 I had the privilege of preaching on Mark 1:1–13 at Kenwood Baptist Church, “The Baptist and the Christ.”
In this text John the Baptist prepares the way for Jesus in the wilderness, and there are some interesting statements in roughly contemporary texts from Josephus that shed light on the symbolic import of what John was doing in the wilderness.
Josephus, War, 2.258:
“Besides these there arose another body of villains, with purer hands but more impious intentions, who no less than the assassins ruined the peace of the city. Deceivers and imposters, under the pretence of divine inspiration fostering revolutionary changes, they persuaded the multitude to act like madmen, and led them out into the desert under the belief that God would there give them tokens of deliverance. Against them Felix, regarding this as but the preliminary to insurrection, sent a body of cavalry and heavy-armed infantry, and put a large number to the sword” (italics mine).
Similarly Antiquities, 20.168–170:
“. . . called upon the mob to follow them into the desert. For they said that they would show them unmistakable marvels and signs that would be wrought in harmony with God’s design. . . . there came to Jerusalem from Egypt a man who declared that he was a prophet and advised the masses of the common people to go out with him to the mountain called the Mount of Olives . . . For he asserted that he wished to demonstrate from there that at his command Jerusalem’s walls would fall down, through which he promised to provide them an entrance into the city” (italics mine).
Josephus, Antiquities, 20.188:
“. . . the dupes of a certain imposter who had promised them salvation and rest from troubles, if they chose to follow him into the wilderness” (italics mine).
These texts also shed light on something Jesus said in Matthew 24:26–28,
“So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” (italics mine).
See also Josephus, Antiquities, 20.97:
“During the period when Fadus was procurator of Judaea, a certain imposter named Theudas persuaded the majority of the masses to take up their possessions and to follow him to the Jordan River. He stated that he was a prophet and that at his command the river would be parted and would provide them an easy passage” (italics mine).