Clueless John the Baptist

John the Baptist was in prison when he heard the marvelous stories about Jesus, and he sent his disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matt. 11:2–3).

[SFX: record scratch]

Hold on—this is a remarkable question! John the Baptist doesn’t know whether Jesus is the Messiah or not?

John was pretty clear about who Jesus was when he baptized him. Not only did he recognize Jesus’s priority and ask that Jesus baptize him (Matt. 3:14), but he heard a voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus as God’s son. His conclusion at the time: “I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One” (John 1:34).

John’s very purpose was to be the messenger who would prepare the way (Matt. 11:10). How could he not know?

The familiarity probably went back even further, since John and Jesus were related. Their mothers were cousins (or “relatives”—see Luke 1:36), and Jesus’s mother Mary stayed with John’s mother Elizabeth for the last trimester of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Heck, the boys might have played together.

And John has to ask who Jesus is?

We find more confusion in the John the Baptist story when we try to figure out who John really is. Jesus cites an Old Testament prophecy that says that the messenger who will prepare the way for the Messiah would be the prophet Elijah. Jesus then makes clear that John the Baptist is this reincarnation of Elijah.

But wait a minute—in another gospel, John makes clear he’s not Elijah (John 1:21).

This is the problem with harmonizing the gospels: they don’t harmonize. We shouldn’t treat them as history but the end product of a long and harrowing journey during which much was probably lost, added, and changed, but we don’t know what.

As Randel Helms in Gospel Fictions puts it, the gospels were intended “less to describe the past than to affect the present.” Let’s treat them for what they were meant to be: documents making a theological point, not history.

When I was a child,
I spoke as a child,
I understood as a child,
I thought as a child,
but when I became a man,
I put away childish things.
— 1 Cor. 13:11

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  • D

    I’m researching the reason why John the Baptist sent people to see if Jesus was the One they were waiting for when he had already recognized Him at His baptism. I ran into this post and had a few thoughts:

    1. John the Baptist was not a reincarnation of Elijah. In fact, the Bible doesn’t support the idea of reincarnation anywhere. When the end of Malachi talks about Elijah coming, it refers to one who was similar to Elijah. Looking back at 1 Kings 16:29-17:1 and 18:1-40 we see the purpose of God choosing Elijah: to turn the people back from King Ahab leading the nation into idol worship. John the Baptist was a “second Elijah” in that he came to prepare people for Jesus’ coming. In other words, both Elijah and John were chosen to turn the people back to God (which is why John preached repentance and baptism).

    John denied being Elijah because the Jews didn’t understand that one like Elijah would come, not Elijah himself. John wasn’t Elijah; he was John. They both had a similar task from God, but one was not a reincarnation or rebirth of the other. They were distinct individuals, and Malachi only prophesied of Elijah coming to allow us to better understand who the job of John the Baptist.

    2. The gospels harmonize wonderfully, if we remember that these four gospels are the same story written from four different eye witness perspectives (just as you and I might write a series of events differently, adding and leaving out some details, if we experienced the same situation together).

    3. As for not treating the gospels as history: According to requirements for historical accuracy, the gospels have plenty of evidence for being legitimate historical events. I assume you believe Alexander the Great was in fact a person, and the story you know of him today is true. Alexander the Great’s story was written hundreds of years after his death by someone who never knew him. However, the accounts in the gospels were written only a short time after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and by men who knew him well. Many aspects of the Bible are used in historical accounts of world events and major landmarks because they include specific genealogy, specific events during time, and specific locations that are still in existence today. The gospels are no less reliable because they have references to real places by multiple eye witnesses for various accounts.

    4. Lastly, what is theology and sound doctrine if it is not historically accurate. There’s a difference between well-researched and understood faith and dumb faith. It also doesn’t make any sense for you to use Bible references like 1 Corinthians 13:11 to make a point if you find the Bible to be fallible (which you are stating here by claiming the lack of historical accuracy of the Bible).

    Just some thoughts I had while running into this article.

    • Pofarmer

      1). Really doesn’t particularly matter.

      2). You would think more folks would have commented about the Dead running around Jerusalem. There are simply too many large And important inconsistencies to just claim alternative points of view.

      3). You are very simply wrong, and Richard Carrier and others have dealt with this in detail. Carrier has a blog, you can search it.

      4). Theology isn’t about truth, theology is about control. Well researched faith is what led me t Agnosticism.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      2) I agree with Pofarmer that the gospels don’t particularly harmonize
      well. They make sense if you see them as legend, recorded in different places and times.

      3) Alexander’s story in history has been scrubbed of all supernatural
      content. Shouldn’t we do the same for the Jesus story?

  • TGronk

    This entire article is incorrect.

    First off, john wasn’t in jail when he heard about Jesus. he knew about Jesus even before he was born when he leapt in his mothers womb when Mary visited Elizabeth because of the presence of the conceived Jesus. John recognized Jesus even before he was born.

    Also, Mary and Elizabeth were sisters, not cousins. Jesus and John were cousins, but not Mary and Elizabeth.

    And what do you mean “Heck, the boys might have played together”? John possibly could of been born while Mary was there, but Mary had left way before the birth of Jesus

    I don’t know if your possibly Catholic, but i don’t know because this is an Atheist website, but maybe, before you decide to go out and write this stuff trying to insult John the Baptist, get your facts from more places than Wikipedia, Mr. “doctor”

    • Bob Seidensticker

      This entire article is incorrect.

      I am seeing a lot of errors, but I don’t think they’re in the article.

      he knew about Jesus even before he was born when he leapt in his mothers womb

      Yeah, I’m pretty sure I mentioned that very incident in the post.

      Mary and Elizabeth were sisters, not cousins.

      Nope. Every translation that I can find says “relative” or “cousin.”

      May I suggest you consult the Bible in the future? I’ve heard good things about it.

      John possibly could of been born while Mary was there, but Mary had left way before the birth of Jesus

      Oh, yeah. Good point. Mary and Elizabeth lived thousands of miles away and never saw each other again.

      I don’t know if your possibly Catholic


      before you decide to go out and write this stuff trying to insult John the Baptist, get your facts from more places than Wikipedia, Mr. “doctor”

      While we’re sharing suggestions, I suggest that you avoid making false charges and (more important!) actually address the point of the post, Mr. “Gronk.” Which is still standing, thank you very much.