I’ve been thinking a lot about John the Baptist lately (for reasons that are probably obvious to most who know my current research projects). The British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog offered an illustrated tutorial on how to be a hermit. They started off with Elijah and then John as one who patterned himself after Elijah. I think that connection is instructive. I don’t envisage Elijah as a recluse. He withdrew when his life was sought by authorities hostile to him. But he also confronted opponents on their home turf. I don’t think John the Baptist was a recluse either. He attracted the attention of political and religious authorities, as well as adherents from places as far afield as Phoenicia and apparently Ephesus. That doesn’t sound like a figure akin to St. Anthony or other monastics mentioned in the British Library blog post.
I will note here that Mandaean sources do not depict him as an isolated figure dwelling in remote areas. And technically neither do other sources. Placing him in the Judaean wilderness would not require him to avoid or be far from Jerusalem, Jericho, Hebron, and many other cities and towns, not to mention the Jordan River. The idea of him as a recluse presumably emerged in a context in which readers of the Bible were less familiar with the region in which events were described as unfolding. Perhaps the association of John with Qumran has also contributed to this perception, although which is the cause and which is the effect is hard to say.
As I will emphasize in a book I’ve barely started writing, it is important and worthwhile to bring the Mandaean sources into the picture when studying the historical figure of John the Baptist. Even if one decides that the Mandaean sources offer no independent historical information, their differences from other sources raise interpretative possibilities that we might otherwise neglect, often ones that are perfectly compatible with the evidence from the New Testament and/or Josephus, but which do not occur to us because of the dominance of particular Jewish and Christian frameworks of interpreting the information those sources provide.
Scholars emphasize that the audience of the Gospels is not the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem but later and located elsewhere. If a speaker told listeners in Jerusalem that John was “out in the wilderness” it might imply “away from the city.” But as a narrator’s comment in the Gospels it does not or at least need not have that connotation.
What do you think? Should we place John in the Judaean Wilderness not only around the Jordan, but active throughout the region, including in cities and towns, and perhaps venturing further afield than that? How would our understanding of him and his activity change as a result?
On monasticism, social distancing, isolation, and quarantine see also:
Also related to John and the location(s) of his activity is this blog post about Qasr al Yahud.