John the Baptist (not) in the Apostolic Fathers

John the Baptist (not) in the Apostolic Fathers February 14, 2016

Brian Le Port decided to take a look and see what the Apostolic Fathers have to say about John the Baptist. He discovered that it is next to nothing. That is very interesting, don’t you think? Any thoughts on why that might be the case?

I have an idea for a book about John the Baptist, and so I am very interested in exploring this topic and hearing what your thoughts are on it!

John the Baptist as a kid


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  • For comparison, how often are major Old Testament figures like Abraham, Moses or Elijah mentioned by the church fathers? I wonder if the lack of references to John might be part of a more general tendency to write only about Jesus and the apostles, to the exclusion of earlier important figures whom they nevertheless obviously respect.

  • brianleport

    In 1 Clement Cain, Abel, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Noah, Jonah, Enoch, and several others are mentioned. Ignatius mentions David (Ephesians 20), as does Didache 20:6. Barnabus mentions Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (8:4), Moses (10:9 and other places), David (10:10-11), Jacob, Joseph, etc. That’s based on a quick scan. They don’t receive pride of place, but several do appear, sometimes somewhat frequently like David and Moses.

    Outside of these figures, Pilate is mentioned a few times. Herod the Tetrarch (Smyrnaeans 1:2). Of course, Peter, Paul, John (the Apostle), and others around Jesus receive several mentions. I think that’s more puzzling as it relates to John than characters from the Hebrew Bible, esp. since the (canonized) Gospels give John a central place in their narratives.

  • Arlene Adamo

    After baptism, Jesus didn’t join up with John nor John with Jesus. They continued on separate paths. John baptized and Jesus did not. John was an ascetic and Jesus was not.

    There would have been two different developing sects of Jews, those who believed in ways of John and those who believed in the ways of Jesus. The followers of John would not have necessarily followed Jesus after the death of the one they believed was a Messiah. They would have glorified John instead and doubled down on his teachings.

    In the years following the crucifixion, the two movements would have likely stayed on their separate courses. I’d guess that, somewhere along the way, the writers of the gospels tried to unite these two separate, (but not necessarily adversarial), sects.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Maybe John’s message is harder to universalize into spiritual abstractions that would be relevant to the Greco-Roman story? It’s so blatantly Israeli and apocalyptic. Jesus is much easier to abstract from his historical context.

  • Tony Prost

    Maybe because the Mandaeans coopted J the B, the new Jesus cultists did not want to do anything the Mandaeans did.

  • Paul D.

    After a very brief look, I found references to John the Baptist in Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho), Ignatius (Epistle to the Philadelphians), and Irenaeus (Against Heresies). Still, there weren’t very many considering the enormous volume of writing therein.

    Clement of Alexandria quotes John the Baptist once (as quoted by Matthew and Luke) but attributes it to the “Gospel of John”.

    • Mark

      That discussion in the Dialogue with Trypho XLIX – LII is actually pretty elaborate and kind of wrecks le Porte’s thesis. Maybe though we can revise it, and say that the memory of John tends to be pulled out specifically in controversy with non-Christian Jews, but is less relevant in the general run of patristic literature, which is aimed at Gentiles. Marcion, if I understand, counted John as a prophet of the demiurge and thus as ‘for Jews only’, though I’m not sure what to make of that here.

    • brianleport

      Justin and Irenaeus aren’t included in the Apostolic Fathers corpus edited by Lightfoot and Harmer, later by Holmes, fwiw.

      • Mark

        Ah right, that was clumsy. I wonder (reflecting further) how far ‘Apostolic Fathers’ is a respectable genus. Our evidence that Ignatius in particular is so early seems to be that Eusebius figured he must be – which is not nothing, but seems to be doubted by people who have made a topic of it.

        • brianleport

          That’s a great question, but not sure one I can even attempt to answer. I guess I could see if Holmes’ preface gives the criteria by which such decisions were made. It does seem a bit subjective doesn’t it? JB’s absence from the AFs doesn’t mean he was absent from second century Christianities.

    • brianleport

      Also, it should be noted that in some of the “longer” versions (e.g., the online versioned edited by Philip Schaff) there are more JB quotations. I am not an expert on the textual tradition of the AF, but the Lightfoot/Harmer/Holmes critical editions do not include the longer versions.

  • brianleport

    It should be noted that in some of the “longer” versions (e.g., the online versioned edited by Philip Schaff) there are more JB quotations. I am not an expert on the textual tradition of the AF, but the Lightfoot/Harmer/Holmes critical editions do not include the longer versions.