John the Baptist is one of the most enigmatic figures of the Gospels, and even the four Gospels depict him in a variety of ways. The common thread throughout the Gospels is John’s officiating at the Baptism of Jesus, which we observe this weekend [January 9-10] at the Eucharist. But it may come as a surprise that there is more historical non-Biblical information about John than there is about Jesus. Consequently, to understand the Baptist, it is necessary to know what the ancient world thought about John as a free-standing figure, and then how the Christian evangelists integrated him into the New Testament narrative.
A primary Catholic scholarly source for Gospel study is Father John Meier [b. 1942], in retirement teaching courses at Notre Dame and completing his sixth volume of The Marginal Jew commentaries. [In 1988, when he began, he thought there would be only one volume!] In his second volume, Meier begins with a lengthy treatment on the Baptist called “John without Jesus” [pp. 19-99] and follows that with “Jesus with and without John” [pp. 100-233]. For Meier, John is a critical New Testament personage in his own right and in his interworking with Jesus. Thus, Meier examines what is known about John separate from the Christian Gospel sources.
The primary source for our knowledge of John is the historical text of Flavius Josephus, The Jewish Antiquities. Josephus himself was a ubiquitous character who moved freely in Jewish and Roman circles, and he is a primary source for the terrible war of the Fall of Jerusalem, 66-70 A.D. It is in an earlier context that Josephus introduces John, specifically a rousing military defeat of King Herod at the hands of the Nabothian King Aretas IV around 35 A.D. This loss was a considerable shock to the Jews, and Josephus reports in his Antiquities his suspicions of why this calamity occurred. He writes: “But to some of the Jews it seemed that the army of Herod was destroyed by God—indeed, God quite justly punishing [Herod] to avenge what he had done to John, who was surnamed the Baptist.
“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 [he administered] indeed be acceptable to God, namely, if they used it to obtain not pardon for some sins but rather the cleansing of their bodies, inasmuch as [it was taken for granted that] their souls had already been purified by justice.
“And when the others [namely, ordinary Jews] gathered together [around John]—for their excitement reached fever pitch as they listened to [his] words—Herod began to fear that John’s powerful ability to persuade people might lead to some sort of revolt, for they seemed likely to do whatever he counseled. So Herod decided to do away with John by a preemptive strike before he sparked a revolt. Herod considered this a better [course of action] than to wait until the situation changed and [then] to regret [his delay] when he was engulfed by a crisis.
“And so, because of Herod’s suspicion, John was sent in chains to Machaerus, the mountain fortress previously mentioned; there he was killed. But the Jews were of the opinion that the army was destroyed to avenge John, God wishing to inflict harm on Herod.” [from John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew II, p. 20]
Josephus’ portrayal of John the Baptist is easily recognizable to Christians, but his portrait is incomplete. Josephus tones down John’s eschatological and apocalyptic tendencies, i.e., language about future judgment and the end of the world. Luke’s Gospel [Chapter 3] portrays John as a firebrand who probably would have distressed civil authorities, particularly since Luke singles out soldiers and tax collectors as sinners needing baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
Meier and others make the strong case that the historical existence of John the Baptist can be verified in both the Gospels and secular sources, notably Josephus. Meier applies the scholarly law of “multiple attestation” to the Gospels; John’s existence is recorded in all four Gospels, along with Jesus’ baptism, the calling of the twelve, the feeding of the 5000, the Last Supper, Pontius Pilate, Judas’s betrayal, and the Crucifixion, which all meet the standard of multiple attestation as having strong historical probability. However, John’s identity, ministry, and relationship to Jesus varies considerably across the four Gospels. Meier notes that John meets another marker of historical probability, “the criterion of embarrassment.” Consider for a moment that no Gospel writer would have included the betrayal of Peter during the Passion if it were not true.
John is, is Meier’s words, a true “wild card” with prophetic heritage of the Old Testament but a certain independence as well. His direct contact with the Gospels is limited as well. The constant is his association with Jesus’ baptism, though even here the evangelists narrate the event in different ways. This weekend’s Mass account on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord is drawn from St. Mark, the Gospel of the B Cycle. Mark has no Infancy narrative and begins his Gospel by introducing the adult Jesus as Christ [“the anointed one’], the Son of God. Mark goes on to describe the Baptist as a descendant of the prophetic line of Israel, specifically the Prophet Isaiah. In practical terms Mark depicts John as a messenger preparing for the Lord by extending a baptism or washing for the forgiveness of sins. But this baptism is a preliminary step to what John calls a baptism of the Holy Spirit. Meyer makes the point that in Mark’s narrative there is a confusing disconnect. “The Old Testament prophesied the Baptist as the one who would prepare the way for Jesus; yet John never penetrated the mystery of Jesus’ identity, even when he baptized him.” [p. 21]
There is more mystery. Mark continues his narrative with the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth and his baptism in the Jordan by John. What intrigues the reader—and centuries of readers of this Gospel of Mark—is the history before the event. How did Jesus come to the Jordan in the first place? Was he a typical layman, a Galilean carpenter, one of the hundreds moved by the preaching of this peripatetic Galilean preacher? Or was Jesus one of John’s inner circle of disciples, or as Meyer puts it, was John the mentor of Jesus? And, to go a step further, are there clues to what Jesus understood to be the nature of the water baptism? Was he shedding his sins, a thought entirely foreign to our understanding of Jesus’ nature? Or was Jesus giving good example? St. Matthew, writing after St. Mark, strongly suggests as much in his narrative. See Matthew 3 for his parallel account.
The key to all four baptismal accounts is the encounter of Jesus with the Holy Spirit. In today’s Gospel a voice from the heavens proclaims: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” From the vantage point of Christian faith, the unity of Jesus’ earthly mission with the love and unity of his Father is conscious. Liturgically speaking, the encounter with the Spirit and God’s voice of identity answers the Christmas question of who this babe in Bethlehem is. Hence, the feast of the Baptism is the final day of the Advent-Christmas cycle of feasts. All four evangelists begin the public ministry of Jesus from this point, a ministry celebrated throughout the year as Ordinary Time. Parenthetically, the role of the Baptist becomes virtually invisible from this point in the Gospels, almost adversarial.