It took me until just recently to realize something. It is a result of my continuing to do preliminary work on my project on John the Baptist to which the next academic year will be dedicated. The realization is that we don’t actually believe the things that Jesus is reported as having said about John the Baptist. Most readers instinctively fail to take Jesus’ own words about John at face value, so certain are they that Jesus could not have praised John in a way that elevated John above himself. Yet Jesus is reported to have said, “I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John” (Luke 7:28 = Matthew 11:11 with slight variation – note as well that Matthew’s version begins with Jesus’ characteristic “Amen I say to you”). Jesus, himself born of a woman (we did not need Paul’s explicit statement in Galatians 4:4 to know this), said that none born of a woman is greater than John. There is of course the additional phrase saying that the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than him. But that cannot mean that those in the Kingdom of God are not also born of women, nor is it likely to be excluding John from entering the Kingdom. The meaning is thus most likely that the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist is now. Even the greatest person alive now does not come close to the greatness that will characterize the very least of those who enter the Kingdom of God. If that is the meaning, then what might John’s status be in the Kingdom?
The Pseudo-Clementine Recognitions describes followers of John quoting Jesus’ statement about John as evidence that John rather than Jesus was the Christ. Here is the relevant section (1.60):
“And, behold, one of the disciples of John asserted that John was the Christ, and not Jesus, inasmuch as Jesus Himself declared that John was greater than all men and all prophets. ‘If, then,’ said he, ‘ he be greater than all, he must be held to be greater than Moses, and than Jesus himself. But if he be the greatest of all, then must he be the Christ.’ To this Simon the Canaanite, answering, asserted that John was indeed greater than all the prophets, and all who are born of women, yet that he is not greater than the Son of man. Accordingly Jesus is also the Christ, whereas John is only a prophet: and there is as much difference between him and Jesus, as between the forerunner and Him whose forerunner he is; or as between Him who gives the law, and him who keeps the law. Having made these and similar statements, the Canaanite also was silent.
It is interesting to note in response that, while this Simon says John was “only a prophet,” Jesus is depicted in the Gospels as having said that John was “More than a prophet” (Matt. 11:9 = Luke 7:26). What might Jesus have meant when he said that all the prophets (and the Torah) prophesied until John (Matthew 11:13)? Does this mean that the prophecies in the Jewish scriptures were about events up until (and perhaps including) John and nothing further? Was John’s execution then at odds with an initial expectation Jesus had that the end must come within John’s lifetime, that John’s activity marked the end of history from creation until the dawn of the Kingdom of God? Luke 16:16 has significantly different wording, suggesting that the Law and Prophets are up until John, and since then the Kingdom of God is proclaimed. Is the meaning of that fundamentally different? If so, which is more original? If Luke’s version is clearer in putting John in a subordinate place then that seems all the more likely to represent a reworking in conformity with the aim of the Gospel author.
Whatever you think about any given piece of evidence, does all of the above taken together indicate that Jesus held John in higher esteem than Jesus’ followers today tend to acknowledge?
Of related interest:
And finally, a Mandaean friend shared this meme with me: