Advent is a time of prime exposure of John the Baptist in the Liturgy of the Church, as in today’s Gospel from Luke. The general portrayal of the Baptist in preaching and catechetics is of a powerful forerunner of Jesus who disappears from the scene in a violent death at the hands of an intoxicated yet grim King Herod. The origins, life, and death of John the Baptist, and particularly his relationship with Jesus in terms of vision and ministry, is extremely complex. I am using Father John Meier’s A Marginal Jew II: Mentor, Message, and Miracles (1994) as my prime source today.
Meier finds no indication that John’s roots go back to a peculiar apocalyptic strain of Jews known as the Essenes. In the mid-20th century, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there was much speculation that John had been formed in an Essene culture: isolated from Jerusalem, living like monks, engaging in frequent ritual baths to purify themselves for the wrath of God’s deliverer who is to come. While John shares an Essene outlook for the future, there are too many differences to identify John as an Essene.
For one thing, John is a solitary figure. He just appears in the Gospel narratives. His only identifiable community is a group of disciples who apparently connected with him as he preached in the desert regions. As we will see this year in Cycle C, St. Luke records John’s preaching (Luke 3ff) as similar to the best of the classical Israelite prophets, particularly the more radical ones. He denounces the deterioration of Abraham’s tradition and warns of a coming catastrophe. John baptizes, but only once, unlike the Essene repeated washings; his baptism is a once-for-all event in preparation for an imminent, fiery future. None of the Gospels depict his preaching as a direct prediction of Jesus’ arrival, but John does anticipate one stronger than himself whose baptism will do in actuality what John’s does symbolically.
In fact, there is some uncertainty of how Jesus and John came together. It is very possible that Jesus himself—like several of his own future disciples—went out into the desert to hear John. Was Jesus himself baptized? Meier is of the opinion that he was, based on the “criterion of embarrassment,” i.e., that a Gospel writer would not invent an account in which Jesus would submit to a lesser figure. (See Matthew’s disclaimer, Matthew 3: 14-15) The evangelists depict the baptism of Jesus as an event of affirmation of the Father that Jesus is the Spirit-filled promised One. The Gospels, though, were written a half-century after the fact when the event could be interpreted in the light of the Resurrection and Pentecost. If indeed Jesus was baptized by John, and there is no historical reason to doubt the event itself, it may be that the simplest answer is the best one: Jesus was washed in the Jordan along with others for the same reason: he believed John’s preaching of an imminent judgment to come upon Israel. This reason is certainly compatible with Jesus’ own developed preaching later.
So, if Jesus acknowledged the “validity” of John’s baptism, he must have acknowledged the validity of John’s message as the Gospels have recorded it, meaning that we can get some insight into Jesus’ own vision at this time. John’s mission called for the acceptance of three points. (1) The end of Israel’s history as Israel had experienced it, was fast approaching. (2) Israel as a people had gone astray, and so all Israel was in danger of being consumed by the fire of God’s wrathful judgment, soon to come. (3) The only way to change to the status of the children of Israel who would be saved on the last day was to undergo a basic change, sealed by submission to a one-time immersion baptism. There is certainly nothing inconsistent here with Jesus’ later announcement of the Kingdom of God.
The question of whether Jesus was a disciple of John is complicated by the evidence that John had no independent order or worship core that we can identify. If Jesus was with John, it was as a fellow-traveler and probably as a companion in preaching John’s message. But there is no precise understanding of the time and the manor of the break, so to speak. The Gospel of John alone records that Peter, Andrew and John encountered Jesus in the Baptist’s ambit and decided to follow him in the sense of staying with him. We do not know, for example, if John the Baptist sent out clusters of missionary preachers making the call to baptism, but in John 3:22—after the famous “born again” discourse with Nicodemus--there is reference to Jesus and his followers in Judaea baptizing, though later in the text it is only the disciples baptizing.
We know that later in the Gospel narrative of Luke 7 there is some indication of strain between Jesus and John the Baptist. When John was rotting away in Herod’s prison, he sent two of his disciples to inquire of Jesus if he was indeed the one who is to come. Generally, we have tended to preach this text benignly, as an opportunity for Jesus to exalt himself. But John must have wondered how Jesus could overlook the debauchery of Herod; isn’t the role of a prophet to decry sin and pay the consequences? Jesus’ answer, if read in a particular way, is a response that his (Jesus’) mission is to announce that his Father’s kingdom is now at hand. In that same text, Jesus makes his famous accolade about the Baptist: “Of men born of women, there is none greater than John the Baptist.”
On My Mind