The Advent of John the Baptist

The Advent of John the Baptist December 24, 2018

There have been quite a number of interesting posts about John the Baptist over recent months, and given my interest in the historical figure of John, I’ve been making a note of them, with the intention of returning to them when time permitted, or when it seemed a particularly appropriate time to write about John. And since John is the focus of attention during Advent, viewed as the voice crying in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord whose birth will be celebrated on December 25th, this time of year makes it natural to mention them. I’ve continued to work slowly but surely on the John the Baptist book, although the appearance of the major prompt to this new project, the published edition of the Mandaean Book of John that I worked on with Charles Haberl over the past several years, is still facing some delays. It is available for pre-order, and hopefully production will be able to begin soon. It is challenging to produce an edition of a text in a script that is not widely used, for which we had to have a font created especially for the project! But when you read it, I am confident you’ll agree it was worth the wait.

Here is what other blogs have had to offer related to John the Baptist recently:

Sarah Rollens mentioned John in her piece about apocalyptic in Q.

The Zondervan blog has a post adapted from Clark H. Pinnock’s article on John the Baptist in the Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible and Gary Burge’s online course on the book of John.

Brant Pitre shared a video about John the Baptist.

Chuck Queen asked whether John and Jesus were as much “opposites” as is sometimes assumed.

Carl Rasmussen blogged about the archaeology of immersion pools in the Holy Land.

If you’re on academia.edu, don’t miss the various articles made available there related to the Mandaeans.

Also of interest:

A Short Report on our 2018 Excavations at Mt Zion in Jerusalem

Advent 3: Turning Aside from Fear & Abusive Systems

I was very disappointed that Philip Jenkins, highlighting Gnostic texts that came to light before 1910, didn’t mention the Mandaeans, whose texts were never lost and never needed to be dug out of the ground.

I also had drawn to my attention that there is John the Baptist mythicism that goes hand in hand with Jesus mythicism for some people:

The Nasarene Delivery

What questions do you think it most interesting to ask, and/or most important to answer, in a book about John the Baptist as a historical figure?

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  • robrecht

    While I’m certainly not a John the Dunker debunker, the most interesting questions about him probably cannot be answered. I would most like to know what was John (and Jesus’) familiarity with the Qumran group or similar groups. How easily did his baptism of repentance take on a predominantly christoligical focus?

    Anyway, James, a very merry Christmas to you and all your loved ones!

    • John MacDonald

      I don’t think there is reason to doubt that John the Baptist existed, but rather there is a question of whether Jesus knew him?

      Later gospel writers were quite uncomfortable with Mark’s account of John the Baptist baptizing Jesus, and so included that pericope in spite of their purposes, which would seem to make it historical.

      On the other hand, we have to be careful in applying these criteria here because just because Mark’s baptism pericope made later writers uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean Mark was uncomfortable with the baptism pericope: Mark says “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ ; as it is written in the prophets.” Mark immediately interprets John the Baptist as a forerunner of the Messiah (a la Elijah in II Kings 1:8). Mark then clothes John similar to Elijah (Mark 1:6. II Kings 1:8.) He then says John ate locusts and wild honey,the food of the wilderness in which Elijah lived (and so on and so on). Some see in the Jordan baptism and the endowment with the spirit a repetition of 2 Kings 2, where, near the Jordan, Elijah bequeaths a double portion of his own miracle-working spirit to Elisha, who henceforth functions as his successor and superior. So there is reason to doubt the historical Jesus was baptized by John.

      Some have tried to rescue the historicity of the Jesus/John relationship by pointing out John doubts Jesus, but this wouldn’t seem to be any more of a guarantee of the historicity of Jesus’ relationship with John the Baptist than it would be arguing on analogous grounds that Peter must have denied Jesus just because the story says so, or Thomas must have doubted Jesus, or the disciples actually did doubt what Jesus could do in certain situations when he had just performed a miracle resolving an analogous situation just a little while earlier, etc.

      So, I think that while it is clear Jesus and John existed, it is at least worthy of questioning as to whether they knew each other.

      • robrecht

        I don’t disagree. The relationship between Jesus and John or between their later disciples may have been rather remote. Our sources do not allow us to say much about the actual historical realities behind them.

        • John MacDonald

          And there certainly would have been theological motivation to link Jesus to such a well known, loved religious prophet as John the Baptist.

          • Would we have the impression that he was well-known and loved if we had no Christian sources that allow us to deduce this?

          • John MacDonald

            We don’t have to infer everything about John is fictionalized just because a lot of it is (e.g., John as modelled after Elijah).

          • robrecht

            Do we know for a fact that John did not model himself after Elijah?

          • John MacDonald

            That is certainly possible. I, for instance, try to model myself after The Joker and Darth Sidious (as I point out on my blog, (http://palpatinesway.blogspot.com/ ). However, if John did not in fact model his life after Elijah, Mark’s literary embellishment would be akin to Matthew inventing material to present Jesus as the new and greater Moses.

      • You don’t think it is more likely that Peter denied knowing Jesus, than that the church concocted that story about one of their leaders?

        • John MacDonald

          Hey James. I hope you have a great Christmas!

          As to your question, I think Peter’s denials serves a theological purpose, so there is reason to doubt their historicity, as the early church may have had reason to invent them. From Wikipedia,

          This episode has been seen as an incident that sheds light on the unique role of Peter and sets him apart from the other disciples, just as in the Gospel of Mark 16:7 in which the angel tells the women to “go and tell his disciples and Peter” about the resurrection of Jesus. In this episode, as often elsewhere in the Gospel of Mark, Peter acts as the focus of the apostles, and an essential Christological image is presented: the denials of Peter contrast with the frank confessions of Jesus in his trial by the Sanhedrin, portraying his faithfulness as prophet, Son and Messiah.

          That doesn’t mean Peter didn’t doubt/deny Jesus, just that the theological purposes of the pericope raise doubt, just as we wouldn’t immediately think Thomas doubting Jesus is historical.

          • John MacDonald

            Maybe the theological point of John the Baptist questioning/doubting Jesus is an existential point about the place we all go of questioning whether or not our circumstances reflect God’s plan when things are going horrible for us as they were for John the Baptist. Or, maybe the imprisoned John was questioning Jesus because things weren’t going along as they should if Jesus was a traditional military/political messiah, and the story of John’s doubts was one of an awakening of conscious from a view of Jesus as a political messiah, to one as a spiritual messiah? Or, maybe there is a theological message I don’t recognize? Or, maybe John The Baptist really did doubt Jesus from prison? Who knows, lol?

          • There will always be uncertainty, and there will always be “maybe there’s something there I don’t recognize,” and there will always be reasons we can imagine why someone found something useful. The question is probability, and when one finds oneself clutching at straws to explain why something might have been invented out of whole cloth, that in itself is a good argument to view historicity as at least slightly more probable than not.

          • John MacDonald

            In response to John The Baptist’s doubts, Jesus responded to tell John of all the wonders Jesus had done, so it seems the point is for John to rethink what it meant for Jesus to be the chosen one (IE, not a political messiah, but a spiritual one in some sense).

          • Again, is it more likely that Christians invented the idea that John and Jesus were at odds on some points, or is that more likely something Christians had to wrestle with because it confronted them from outside their imaginative and creative processes?

          • John MacDonald

            It would seem that for the purpose of proselytizing that the early church would have been engaged in, it would have been an issue to get the people to accept a non-traditional interpretation of a Messiah, so the story of John doubting Jesus would have served as an effective exemplar.

            I don’t think my interpretation is more likely than yours, just that the two are possibilities. Of course, you have a far greater background in religious and historical studies than me, so you are definitely more qualified to assign probabilities on this issue than me! I get points for creativity, in any case, lol.

    • Thanks for sharing these thoughts! You will definitely find the book interesting…

      Merry Christmas/Happy holidays to you and yours as well!

  • BruceOcala

    Fascinating discussion.

    The question of Jesus following the formula when coming to John for baptism – repentance of sins – which was a sufficiently discomfiting issue for Matthew to portray a verbal dance between John and Jesus, while the gospel of John omitting the actual baptism of Jesus altogether, yet Mark and Luke have no problem. Did Jesus repent of his sins like everyone else? (I had mentioned this in a comment at Vance Morgan’s on a post about valuing Jesus’ humanity.)

    The gospel of John uniquely has Jesus and his disciples baptizing in 3:22ff and 4:1-2. These notes seem quite misplaced in John’s narrative since Jesus would seem to have already begun his ministry apart from John the Baptist – Cana, Temple clearing, and Nicodemus preceded these notes and would seem to establish Jesus’ ministry independently. Further, these are odd accounts for the evangelist to retain and/or forcibly include. He wouldn’t describe Jesus being baptized, yet there are these notes about Jesus (and his disciples) doing baptisms??

    These odd notes also beg the question of why Jesus never did any baptisms in his ministry (at least reported by the evangelists) apart from these odd notes in John. Yet the earliest church makes “baptism in the Spirit” prerequisite, making some form of baptism a central part of post-resurrection Jesus disciples. (JDG Dunn seems to think that “baptism in the Spirit” wasn’t necessarily a water baptism.)

    I think the eschatological context needs to be overlaid to explain much of this, but here are a few tormenting questions that I know of. Have fun!!