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

Photo credit: Wikipedia

About Bob Seidensticker
  • avalon

    Hi Bob,
    There’s a clear disconnect between the words attributed to John the baptist and his actions.

    John is described as a prophet with disciples. His sole purpose is to announce that Jesus is the messiah. He is said to have done that when Jesus was baptized. If that’s true then:
    1. Why didn’t John become a follower of Jesus?
    2. Why did just two of John disciples follow Jesus? (John 1:37)
    3. Even with John in prison, John has followers who aren’t part of the Jesus movement. Why?
    4. It would seem that John’s followers never got the message. Apollos was a follower of John and “taught accurately the facts about Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25). If those facts showed Jesus to be the savior why is it the Jesus followers “took him aside and explained the way of God to him more accurately”? Is this scripture not saying that there’s a difference between the facts of Jesus and the story (spin) of Jesus?
    5. Paul finds even more followers of John in Ephesus (Acts 19). If John announce Jesus as messiah why did John still have followers? And why was John’s teaching different from what Jesus taught? (He found some disciples there and said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Acts 19:2).

    So was John in competition with Jesus as his and his disciples actions indicate or did he proclaim that Jesus was the messiah as the words attributed to him say? How could someone know the “facts about Jesus” and still be a follower of John?


    • Bob Seidensticker

      Great questions!

      I’ve heard that John was originally just another guy with a cult following. His cult was subsumed into the Jesus movement, and the different books of the New Testament have only partly adopted the party line–Jesus was the real deal and John only pointed the way.

  • Arkenaten

    Excellent post and also Avalon’s comment. I had not considered much of this, and I’ll bet that many Christians have not been exposed to this train of thought either.
    Give me something to wile away an hour or so reading/researching!

  • Phil

    One of the hardest papers I ever had to write in graduate school was the assignment: “Write something interesting about the 4 gospels.”

    I undertook a compare and contrast of Jesus and John (not very original, I know, but I needed something (italicized)). Writing the paper proved to be fascinating. While it has been close to 20 years since I was in graduate school, a couple things still stick with me (I should re-read that paper sometime):

    1) The reason why we have the Lord’s Prayer (at Luke 11:1-4) is because John taught his disciples a prayer, and Jesus’s disciples wanted one too. — That is, Jesus’s disciples explicitly asked Jesus to teach them a prayer because they wanted to be like John’s disciples, and that is the way we got the most famous Christian prayer ever. Weird.

    2) Jesus and John are almost completely parallel in every way. Except: No record in any of the gospels of John healing the sick. Don’t know what to make of that.

    3) Was John raised from the dead? There is only the thinnest of materials–but it is there. See Mark 8:28 (which is fascinating). Who are these people saying that Jesus IS John the Baptist?–and I assume the people saying that mean that Jesus is John raised from the dead. Indeed, do they mean raised from the dead IN Jesus?!?! Who are these people? What the heck? What do we make of that? Weird.

    I believe the professor’s handwritten comment on the paper was “Workmanlike.” Ouch.

    • Bob Seidensticker

      I’ve heard Bob Price say that the John birth narrative in Luke was likely a separate tradition that got stuck in, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to encompass the John teaching and so bring his followers into the fold.

      Thanks for the insights.

  • 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.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined 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?