John the Baptist Call for Papers

John the Baptist Call for Papers December 19, 2023

There is a brand new Society of Biblical Literature program unit focused on John the Baptist, and it will be on the annual meeting program for the first time in 2024 in San Diego. The call for papers is now on the SBL website and so I thought I’d draw it to everyone’s attention now so you can start thinking about a paper you’d like to submit.

Program unit description: While there is always a steady trickle of interest in John the Baptist, recent publications in English, Spanish, and Italian suggest that there is a current surge not only in interest in John as a historical figure, not only also as a literary figure in the canonical Gospels, but in his appearance in Christian apocrypha and in Mandaean literature. These areas are often separated among different program units, and this consultation will provide a place for them to come together and interact.

Call for papers: In this inaugural year of the John the Baptist program unit we are pleased to have three sessions: 1) A book review session focused on two new books: James F. McGrath’s John of History, Baptist of Faith (Eerdmans 2023) and Edmondo Lupieri’s John of the Mandaeans (Gorgias 2023). While the panel will be assembled by invitation, expressions of interest to the program unit chairs are welcome. This session is co-sponsored by the Traditions of Eastern Late Antiquity AAR program unit. 2) A session exploring non-canonical accounts of the life and death of John the Baptist. This session will be co-sponsored by the Christian Apocrypha SBL program unit. 3) A third open session.

If you’re interested in being on the review panel, please do let me know.

Both of my John the Baptist books will be out in 2024. One is a general audience biography titled Christmaker: A Life of John the Baptist. The other is an academic monograph: John of History, Baptist of Faith. Both will be published be Eerdmans. The fact that Eerdmans wanted both books took me by surprise but I think is a testament to just what a groundbreaking contribution these will be. I said recently on Twitter (sorry, X) that I genuinely think they will change NT study forever. That venue doesn’t really allow for lengthy elaboration but let me just say what the book will offer. In each of these areas my arguments may not be correct, but they are different from what others have said before me. Here are the things the books will offer in terms of their portrait of John, with the academic monograph making the case for these points and the biography telling the story of John’s life in an accessible and readable way:

  • The extent of John’s influence and why the image of him as a “bug-eating wild man” is horribly wrong.
  • How and why John invented baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
  • How John the Baptist provides the key to explaining Jesus’ use of “son of man” in the Gospels.
  • Jesus of Nazareth as a source of knowledge about John the Baptist.
  • Jesus’ continuity with John and why we should set aside the notion that John “had doubts about Jesus” and “Jesus broke away from John’s vision.”
  • How the Q source focused on John the Baptist as well as Jesus and how taking this into account allows us to understand Q as a coherent work.
  • What we can recover of a lost baptist infancy narrative.
  • How a tradition about the death of John was transformed into one about the death of his father.
  • Why and how we can use Mandaean sources critically to contribute positively to our understanding of John the Baptist.
  • The emergence of Gnosticism in the circle of John’s disciples and an explanation for the origin of Gnosticism.
  • How the concern of supporters of Jesus to elevate him in relation to John drove early Christological development.
  • How others connected with John’s movement made an impact in subsequent decades, with Josephus viewing them as blameworthy in fostering the apocalyptic fervor that ultimately led to the war against Rome.
  • Why the most famous story about John the Baptist has the least historical basis.

If I am right about even just one of my proposals I’ll consider the academic monograph to have made a positive useful contribution to my field. If I am even partly right about many of them, then this book will be for John the Baptist what Paul and Palestinian Judaism was for the study of Paul. The underlying thread of the book is that if we get John the Baptist wrong then we get Jesus, first-century Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism, and much else wrong. If we bring John squarely into the picture, a lot of doors that have remained frustratingly closed suddenly open. I honestly can’t wait for you to read it. The analogy with E. P. Sanders’ famous book about Paul, I might add, should not depend on how much you think Sanders got exactly right. What Sanders did was to challenge assumptions and reframe key questions. I’m confident that even if I am wrong about things in the book (and it is inevitable that I will be), I will at least be wrong in interesting ways that may lead others to new insights and discoveries that will improve our understanding beyond my attempt here. As for the biography, many people have said that a biography of John the Baptist cannot be written, that we simply don’t have the sources we need. I think we do, and that one reason we’ve not been able to bring John into focus is because we haven’t utilized his influence on Jesus as a source of knowledge about John.

On a related note, I have at times played around with AI art generators to see what kinds of images of John the Baptist I could elicit from them. The least direction from me results in the most stereotypical images, but with some more coaxing the AI can at times produce interesting things. Here are some, created using Nightcafe.

 

 

I have been consistently underwhelmed by Dall-E. Here’s the best it came up with when I asked it to depict John the Baptist as a Mandaean priest:

By saying this is the best it came up with, I am not implying that it is good

In 2024 you can expect me to talk a lot about John the Baptist, even more so than usual. I really do wonder whether the kinds of things people blog and preach about John the Baptist next Advent will be different as a result.

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