On the eve of the Christmas observance, I am returning to one of the finest Biblical studies I have ever read, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume II: Mentor, Message, and Miracles  by Father John Meier. This is the second volume of a five-part series, and the first 233 pages are devoted to the relationship of Jesus and John the Baptist. In truth, the life, sources, and significance of the Baptist came as a major surprise to me when I started graduate studies. For years going back to early childhood the person of John was described in my catechetics and Christmas sermons as something of a front man for Jesus. Theologically speaking, there is truth in this statement; John was the herald of the Messiah, the Son of Man. But the historical evidence, at least what is available today, suggests a more complex relationship between John and Jesus. Contemporaries would not have jumped to the conclusion that John was inferior to Jesus.
Source material outside of the Scriptures about events involving Jesus and John is rare and suffers from the common weaknesses of the art of ancient history, but one notable source stands out, the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus [37-100 A.D.] Josephus is one of the ancient world’s true characters. Highly opinionated, he married four times and defected to the Romans during the siege of Jerusalem [66-70 A.D.]. He is the most prolific and persistent historian of the age of John and Jesus. Other secular sources are few and very meager. One of them, Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor in Asia Minor, wrote to the emperor Trajan around 117 A.D. Pliny speaks of a small community which gathers at sunrise to sing hymns to a Crestus, as if he were a god. Not much to work with.
By contrast to Pliny and other non-Biblical sources, Josephus writes at length about John the Baptist and Jesus, but not in the same context. In his Jewish Antiquities Josephus writes that “to some of the Jews it seemed that the army of Herod was destroyed by God…quite justly punishing Herod to avenge what he had done to John, who was surnamed the Baptist.”
Josephus continues: “For Herod killed him, although he was a good man and [simply] bade the Jews to join in baptism, provided that they were cultivating virtue and practicing justice toward one another and piety toward God. For only thus, in John’s opinion, would the baptism…indeed be acceptable [to God], namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies in as much as [it was taken for granted that] their souls had already been purified by justice.”
Josephus’ continues, noting that John’s preaching was raising the Jews to a fever pitch of excitement, which unnerved Herod; the latter believed that John was fomenting a revolution. To head off a crisis, Herod elected to seize John and sent him in chains to Macherus, a mountain fortress, where he had John beheaded. See Mark 6:17ff for details of John’s arrest and death in the Christian Scripture.
Several points to note. One can argue over the focus of this narrative. Josephus may have introduced the Baptist and his good works for the sake of attacking the Herodian dynasty [there were four King Herods over time until the fall of Jerusalem.] Josephus may be saying something to the effect that “this is what the Herodians are capable of, putting to death a man as innocent and good as the Baptist.” Josephus does not understand the full meaning of John’s words; he does not comment on John’s abundance of apocalyptic and futuristic threats as St. Luke does [see Luke 3], nor on the universalist thrust of his ministry. Nor does Josephus indicate John’s religious orientation, which would be important to know. Jews of John’s day were divided into various schools and camps—Sadducees, Pharisees, Levites or liturgical guardians, for example. After World War II, the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls introduced students of the Bible to the Essenes, a small but intriguing community of country dwelling Jews who lived a common life like monks, shared a futuristic vision, and engaged in ritual baths. For a brief time, there was speculation that John the Baptist might have been an Essene, but there are too many reasons to think otherwise.
The most intriguing question about Josephus’ treatment of John is the author’s later treatment of Jesus, which mentions nothing about John the Baptist:
“About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.”
The above paragraph reads like a testimony of a devoted Christian…and the consensus of scholarship today holds that there is some truth to this. The argument today is how much of this paragraph comes from Josephus, and how much is later Christian editing. Given that Josephus comments on other unique personalities of the time, including John the Baptist, his inclusion of Jesus in his history is probably authentic. On the other hand, for a Jew to say that Jesus is the Christ and the fulfillment of the prophets is a rather remarkable thing to behold. One wonders why Josephus himself did not convert! But for our purposes today, it is strange that this historian does not draw any connection between two men he respects enough to include in his history. This leads us to wonder how the Christian scriptures describe the relationship of Jesus and John the Baptist.
The commentary of the NABRE translation of the Bible [used at Mass] indicates that an oral source of the life and work of John the Baptist survived to the writing of the Gospels, four decades later. There is no documentary record of this earliest source; scholars like Father Meier continue to research what is available, primarily the Gospels themselves. The core consensus holds that a figure named John [surnamed the Baptist] preached and baptized, encountered Jesus of Nazareth, had followers, and fell afoul of Herod Antipas and was executed. The process involved here is the law of multiple attestation; the more an event is cited across the four Gospels, the higher the probability of an underlying historical event. Remember that the evangelists were theologians who used this history to develop the full nature and meaning of the coming of the Christ.
So, very briefly, how does each evangelist employ the figure of John the Baptist in his Gospel, in the order the Gospels were written?
St. Mark: This Gospel has no infancy narrative and begins with the appearance of John in the desert “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark gives us John’s unique wardrobe and diet [very high protein, if entomologists are correct], and his message is apocalyptic: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit.” Jesus comes from Nazareth of Galilee “and was baptized in the Jordan by John.” No conversation is recorded nor any unusual crowd reaction. Upon coming out of the water Jesus [alone, apparently] sees the heavens open and the Spirit descending upon him, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” The baptism is presented by Mark as a private revelation and turning point.
Mark reports that after the baptism Jesus proceeds to the desert for forty days, and that John is arrested. The NABRE commentary observes, “In the plan of God, Jesus was not to proclaim the good news of salvation prior to the termination of the Baptist’s active mission.” In Mark’s thinking, Jesus was to introduce a new era of the arrival of the Kingdom of God. However, Mark later recounts in detail the memory of John’s death at the fortress of Macherus, which fits into the Gospel’s theme that every disciple should be prepared to suffer and die.
St. Matthew: Only St. Matthew and St. Luke contain Jesus’ infancy narratives, which incidentally are quite different from each other. Matthew has no mention of John or his family in Jesus’ birth and surrounding events. Matthew introduces John the Baptist in Chapter 3 as a desert preacher calling for repentance. John announces that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew, unlike Mark, gives us considerable content of John’s preaching, which appears targeted at Sadducees and Pharisees for their infidelity to Israel’s true heritage. “God can raise up children of Abraham from these stones.” This is consistent with Matthew’s purpose in depicting Jesus as the new Moses and the fulfillment of the prophets’ preaching.
Jesus seeks out John for baptism, and Matthew describes the only conversation between the two men in the Bible. John, almost to the point of obsequiousness, pleads with Jesus to reverse roles and baptize him. Jesus replies that John should continue as he has, “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Again, Jesus has a private revelation of divine affiliation, and John is arrested shortly thereafter. In retrospect, Matthew treats John as an important precursor of Jesus’ role as the messiah of the new and glorious Israel.
St. Luke: Where to begin? It is Luke’s infancy narrative that has integrated John the Baptist into Christmas piety. John plays a critical role throughout the infancy narrative as Luke contrasts him to Jesus. God intervenes in the conceptions of both John and Jesus, but where John is fathered by his very senior parent, Jesus is fathered by the Holy Spirit. When the pregnant Mary visits Elizabeth, it is the Holy Spirit in Jesus that causes John to jump for joy in his mother’s womb. This narrative is found only in Luke, meaning Luke created this narrative to elaborate the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Holy Spirit, and Mary’s divine maternity.
The adult John preaches in the fashion described in Matthew’s Gospel, though here Luke records that tax collectors and Roman soldiers are included in John’s audience. Luke intended to depict Jesus as a universal savior, not just the deliverer of Israel, and he edits Matthew’s account to some degree to achieve this effect. Luke does not describe the actual baptism of Jesus, writing that “after Jesus had already been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove” with the declaration “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” In all three Gospels so far, the baptism of John is succeeded by a private revelation. No evangelist so far comments on John’s reaction.
There is, in this Gospel, evidence of strain between John’s followers—and possibly John himself—regarding Jesus’ message and style. In 5:33ff, some questioners ask why John’s disciples fast and Jesus’ do not. Jesus replies that one does not fast at a wedding, identifying his message and works as a harbinger of forgiveness, joy, and hope. This is a very different emphasis from John’s forecast of divine wrath to come, and it may explain why two of John’s disciples came to Jesus asking if Jesus was the messiah, “or should we look to someone else?” Luke’s Gospel, interestingly, implies that John may have been still preaching during Jesus’ ministry, or that a strong community of the Baptist continued after John’s death. Again, we have an example of John serving as a contrast to Jesus in order to explain the meaning of Jesus more clearly, a peculiarity unique to Luke.
St. John: This Gospel contains no infancy narrative. The first chapter, though, is the high watermark of John the Baptist’s visibility in the New Testament. The NABRE commentary summarizes the Baptist’s work as clarification that he [John] is not the messiah and positive identification of Jesus, culminating in his declaration that Jesus is the Son of God. It is this narrative that introduces the first apostles as original followers of John. The evangelist John’s gospel is the final to be written, perhaps around 100 A.D. when the first heresies about Jesus’ identity were becoming problematic [i.e., was he truly God? Truly man?] Writing in this environment St. John depicts the Baptist as an authoritative voice on the identity of Christ. In a sense, the evangelist has extended the influence of the Baptist into a church now several generations old.
In conclusion, it is safe to say that John the Baptist correctly prepared the way for the savior, a being he probably did not fully understand. But without John, the Gospel writers would have been hard pressed to understand the savior, too.
The Café is closing for Christmas. The best to all, and we’ll see you later in the week.
On My Mind