John, known as the “Baptist” in several but not all New Testament references, remains one of Scripture’s most intriguing figure. Our catechetics and preaching have led us to consider John as religion’s greatest advance man. The term “precursor” was one of those linguistic challenges of early religious education, up there with tabernacle, transubstantiation, and other terms given us in youth to unpack as adults. I was well on my way to middle school before the terminology of the Feast of the Circumcision was explained to me, in benign and generic ways. In a nutshell, our 1950’s religion classes depicted John as a strange and wooly character of the desert who baptized imperfectly until Jesus came on the scene to reorder the washing rite into our familiar sacrament of Baptism for the forgiveness of original sin.
My youthful religious education took place in an age when independent Bible reading of the texts was neither taught nor encouraged. I had no idea that around the Western World scholars were studying the Bible, Jewish history, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, among other sources, and discovering what a complex man it was whose path crisscrossed that of Jesus of Nazareth. As the Catholic Biblical scholar Father John Meier reminds us, John had a life before Jesus, and there is good evidence that his movement continued long after Jesus. [A Marginal Jew II, p. 22] In the New Testament Acts of the Apostles [Chapter 19: 1-7], Paul comes across a community of the baptized who tell him: “We have never even heard that there is a holy Spirit.” Paul deduces that these are followers of John, now long dead, suggesting that John’s message and ministry was a true entity unto itself.
Meier’s commentary, which I laid out in some detail in the previous post on this stream below, notes the distinct ways in which John interacts with Jesus. The four Gospels each take a different vantage point for the relationship of John’s ministry and Jesus’ community. These differences are not necessarily contradictory; what they do show is the variety of ways each evangelist attempted to explain John and his role in the dramatic unfolding of God’s saving intervention. Meier maintains that the degree of difficulty across all four Gospels argues strongly for the historical reality of John, for no one would have gone to the trouble of inventing a figure so enigmatic as to create a world of puzzlement for the Christian Church.
Last Sunday’s Gospel was taken from the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Absent any Infancy narrative, Mark begins with John and Jesus meeting as adults. The description of John—the rugged solitary figure who lives off the land and attracts large crowds with his call to repentance--Mark’s description of John, whom he calls “the Baptist,” draws from the prophesies of Isaiah, the precursor going ahead to prepare the way of the Lord. Mark’s Christology or understanding of Jesus is that of One who has come to usher the new day of the Kingdom of God, and the Markan account of John fits very well with that understanding of Jesus. Mark gives us no idea of the relationship between John and Jesus prior to the baptism, and he does not speak of the two men encountering each other after the baptism. [There is truly little discourse between the two in all the Gospels.] But Mark is the only evangelist who provides a lengthy narrative of the death of John, killed by Herod. Interestingly, when Herod came to hear of Jesus and his works, he comments in Mark 6:16 “It is John whom I beheaded. He has been raised up.” Even after his death, John remained a widely revered figure.
Matthew’s Gospel is one of two that contains an Infancy narrative of Jesus’ birth, but there is no mention of John until the two men meet as adults in much the same way as Mark had described earlier. However, Matthew is the first to describe John’s ministry in considerable detail, notably his fiery preaching. In Matthew’s Gospel John’s words are directed at Pharisees and Sadducees, easily identified populations within Jewish society. John castigates them with the colorful phrase, “brood of vipers.” He accuses them of laxity and indifference, scoffing at their reliance upon their bloodline to Abraham as a kind of assurance of divine favor. “For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” John warns that the one who is to follow him will baptize with the holy Spirit and with fire, separating wheat from chaff in one final judgment.
This depiction of John from Matthew’s pen reinforces the evangelist’s understanding of Jesus as the new Moses, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. John’s damning critique of a complacent Jewish leadership reinforces the conversion of other Jews to Christianity. Matthew’s audience was a church of Jewish converts to Christianity; in the face of persecution Matthew attempts to rally them into remaining faithful to Jesus, in whom all the Scriptures have been fulfilled. Matthew is the only evangelist to include a “transition clause” between John and Jesus at the time of baptism, almost a passing of the baton. When Jesus presents himself for baptism, John protests. “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus replies that John should “allow it for now, for it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Biblical righteousness is a rich theme in the Old Testament, with its root understanding as devotion to God’s revealed Law, the Torah. Later Jesus himself would claim that “I have not come to destroy the Law and the prophets, but to bring them to fulfillment.”
Luke’s Gospel is the only one to integrate John into the Infancy narrative of Jesus, long before his preaching and baptismal ministry. The pairing of the conception narratives in Luke 1 presents a powerful theological statement about both men. John’s birth is holy and marginally miraculous, but he is conceived naturally; the high priest Zechariah is his father. Jesus, by contrast, is conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary, the true Son of God, and the ultimate Spirit-filled preacher of the Father’s message. Even the preborn John recognizes Jesus as divine, and “leaps in the womb” when his mother Elizabeth is visited by the pregnant Mary.
As in the Gospel of Matthew, Luke devotes his third chapter to the preaching of John, nearly a verbatim retelling of Matthew’s account, suggesting a common source available to Matthew and Luke. [This hypothetical text is known as the Q-source.] Luke, whose Gospel has a universal flavor, gives clues that Gentiles may have also sought the baptism of John, as the evangelist cites soldiers and tax collectors—agents—of Rome—in John’s audience. Interestingly, Luke’s narrative relays that John was arrested by Herod and evidently not present when Jesus is baptized, suggesting that John may have had a circle of believers who assisted him. This may explain, too, why John’s disciples came to Jesus instead of John himself, to ask Jesus “are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” [Luke 7: 18-23]
This enigmatic question of John is not viewed as a challenge to Jesus’ credentials, but perhaps more of a “gentle transition.” It is a linguistic opening for Luke to portray Jesus as the one who is God’s final statement to the world. “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard. The blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” Luke’s reference is Isaiah 61, the apocalyptic forecast of deliverance of the poor and suffering. Luke’s inclusion of Isaiah’s language is a redirection from John’s message of future wrathful judgment toward an unspeakable outpouring of divine mercy as personified in Jesus. It is worth noting that Luke’s is the only Gospel to include such portraits of mercy as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Continuing in Chapter 7, Jesus goes on to praise John as the one who has gone ahead of him. “I tell you, among those born of women, no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
In the final Gospel, we have the Evangelist John depicting the Baptist John in the very first chapter. Again, the Evangelist John does not have an infancy narrative; the first meeting of Jesus and John [the Baptist] occurs in adulthood. The author opens his Gospel with the famous Christological hymn, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” From a literary analysis, this hymn as it appears in John’s Gospel is broken in several places by an editor, with references to John the Baptist, as in 1:6-8, “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He [the Baptist] was not the light but came to testify to the light.”
At the conclusion of the hymn the Evangelist describes John in much the same way as the previous Gospels do. When Jesus appears on the scene, John makes his famous profession of faith, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” The term ‘lamb” has multiple meanings. The NABRE Bible commentary says this: “The background for this title may be the victorious apocalyptic lamb who would destroy evil in the world (Rev 5–7; 17:14); the paschal lamb, whose blood saved Israel (Ex 12); and/or the suffering servant led like a lamb to the slaughter as a sin-offering (Is 53:7, 10). In any event, it is the strongest and most detailed affirmation of Jesus from the lips of John in all the Gospels.
The Gospel of John is the only one which states that the Baptist had disciples, and even more remarkably, he encourages two of them, including one named Andrew, to go off and join Jesus as a disciple. [1: 35-37, from this Sunday’s Gospel.] Another curious point in the Gospel of John: the evangelist does not mention the actual baptism of Jesus, but in John 3:22ff. we hear that Jesus and his disciples were baptizing in the same locale as John. This disturbed a disciple of John, who complained to him that “everyone is coming to [Jesus].” John replies that “this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase and I must decrease.” As the Gospel of John is the final one of the four, these words of the Baptist in John 3 are the final message of John the Baptist in the New Testament.