Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Augustine, Harmony of the Evangelists.2.6-8: John the Baptist & the Two Herods


Image: John the Baptist, Byzantine medallion from an icon frame, c. 1,100, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In this episode, we are looking at Book 2, chapter 6-8 where Augustine discusses the appearance of John the Baptist in all four Gospels, explains the mention of two Herods (Herod the Great King of the Jews and his son Herod tetrarch of Galilee) in the Gospels, and Matthew’s mention of Archelaus.

2.6: On the position given to the preaching of John the Baptist in all the four evangelists.

Augustine calls attention to the fact that all four Gospels describe the ministry of John the Baptist. For Matthew and Luke, John’s public preaching ministry begins after their respective birth narratives. Mark does not have the birth narrative but starts in 1:1, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and then proceeds to John’s ministry. Luke makes mention of the political setting (Luke 3:1-2) before describing John’s ministry. John also appears early in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (John 1:6). The four Gospel accounts of John the Baptist, according to Augustine, “are not at variance with one another.” The differences in detail among the four Gospels do not demand the same detailed analysis as required with the genealogies. He encourages his readers to apply the same methodology he used to harmonize apparent differences in the genealogies to other such passages in the Gospels.

2.7: Of the two Herods.

Augustine here draws a distinction between Herod the Great, under whose reign Christ was born, and his son Herod the tetrarch of Galilee in the event someone might be confused about the mention of Herod’s death in Matthew 2:15, 19 (Herod the Great) and the mention of Herod the tetrarch ruling in Galilee in Luke 3:1. His response indicates that this was apparently an area where some critics of the Gospels had claimed a contradiction.

2.8: An explanation of the statement made by Matthew, to the effect that Joseph was afraid to go with the infant Christ into Jerusalem on account of Archelaus, yet was not afraid to go into Galilee, where Herod, that prince’s brother, was tetrarch.

Augustine here anticipates another point at which the Gospel readers might encounter confusion. Matthew 2:22 says that Joseph was fearful to go to Judea when he heard Archelaus ruled there, but then he went to Galilee where Herod ruled. Augustine explains, however, that Galilee was not ruled by Archelaus but by Herod the tetrarch. He notes a time difference between when Archelaus ruled (and was replaced by Pontius Pilate) and the time when the family of Jesus settled in Nazareth.


Augustine offers a harmonious and unified account of John the Baptist across all four Gospels. He is attentive to any perceived misunderstandings that might arise as to the mention of historical figures like the two Herods and Archelaus. We also see again in this section some textual differences between Augustine’s Old Latin text and the traditional Greek text of the New Testament. For example, when citing Mark 1:2 Augustine reads, “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah”; whereas, the traditional text reads, “As it is written in the prophets.”


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