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.

    • 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”

    • 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

      Atheist.

      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.

  • SteamChip

    Hello Bob!
    realize this conversation is a bit old nevertheless…
    Bob==>>the problem with harmonizing the gospels: they don’t harmonize.
    Yes, a harmonization issue,
    but not as you think / wrote
    It is Jesus and John not being on the same page of music.
    (I think avalon is on a blood trail with his post)

    Initially enthused, John is jailed and is in doubters ditch.

    There is ALSO the issue of why John did not follow Jesus to begin with, why did there continue to be disciples of John after the Dove announcement was made (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11)?

    And almost everyone else in the New Testament is jailed /killed for preaching Jesus, NOT for criticizing someone about immorality.

    Historian Josephus (37-c.100) AD however wrote of Herod, ]paraphrased] “fearing the great influence John had over the masses, as they seemed ready to do anything he should advise, even rebellion, Herod therefore thought it best to put him to death. ”

    Josephus wrote of both Jesus and John the Baptist, the latter highly revered / beloved by the Jews. Josephus DOES NOT in any way link John with Jesus, indeed the evidence Josephus provides is that John preached righteousness and perhaps the imminent coming of the Messiah; but apparently not about Jesus to the Jews.

    The Bible states Herod did not want to kill John because he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet.
    In either case the multitude, the masses, presumably Jewish were GREATLY INFLUENCED by John. How many of these knew Jesus because of John; is a SERIOUS question.

    Herod spent time with John “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, but heard him gladly(Mark 6:20).”

    HOWEVER, Herod only learns about Jesus from REPORTS and NOT John the Baptist and thinks that Jesus is a resurrected John the Baptist ( see also Math 14:1-2)
    Mark 6
    14 King Herod heard of Him, for His name was spread publicly. He said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and therefore these miracles are at work in him.”
    16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “It is John, whom I beheaded. He has been raised from the dead!”
    Mathew 14 :
    1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus,
    2 and said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead. And therefore mighty works are at work in him.”

    So John is in the slammer apparently in deep conversation with the King and not preaching anything at all about Jesus!

    And Herod recognizes Jesus is great not because “he is the Son that has has all things placed into his hand(John 3:36),” but because he is JOHN RETURNED.

    Compare that to Paul and Silas who were jailed:
    Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God (Acts 16:25)
    And the JAILER who comes to them after some drama
    “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
    Acts 16:31) They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ…

    –When Jesus states the “least in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist..(Math 11:11; Luke 7:28 )
    1. it is commonly explained to the effect :
    “The Kingdom of Heaven is so great that even those persons that are great such as John the Baptist; are miniscule in comparison to the least of those in the Kingdom.”

    So it is being understood the Kingdom is an outerworldy place where even the “least” of those there are greater than the greatest man born of woman.

    2. Jesus might have also meant John was not in the kingdom of God; which was attained by believing him and John did not appear to be following Jesus.

    3. Along these lines if it is understood that the Kingdom of Heaven “is within you” or “amongst us” (both a state of mind and a place where Jesus is, Luke 17:21), then John therefore already should be a part of this Kingdom:
    –John in whatever capacity was “Elijah” (Luke 1:17; Matthew 11:14; 17:10-13; Mark 9:11-13; who himself was taken up into heaven 2 Kings 2:11);
    –As a citizen of the Kingdom, John therefore lost his position of greatness, so the least was greater than he, as a result of committing a serious error, as Jesus may be implying, based on the narrative verses preceding his statement (Math 11:11; Luke 7:28 ).