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The enigma of the Baptist

24 June 2022

Keith Elliott marks the feast of St John the Baptist with some questions about his relationship with Jesus


St John the Baptist indicates Jesus to the people (Life of St John the Baptist, 13th-century baptistery, Parma)

St John the Baptist indicates Jesus to the people (Life of St John the Baptist, 13th-century baptistery, Parma)

JOHN the Baptist is in many ways a familiar, albeit an enigmatic, character in the Bible. On more than one occasion, he stands as an Old Testament figure in the Gospels of the New Testament, where he seems to be the last in a line of biblical prophets. Certainly, his working in the wilderness, his ascetic behaviour, and his primitive dress conjure up for us the image of an Old Testament prophet.

Christian churches celebrate his birth annually — originally, if his baptising is being recalled, at the beginning of January. In accordance with the New Testament, his actual birth was an event likely to have occurred exactly six months before Jesus’s own birth in December. Unlike Jesus himself, however, and unlike Mary and Joseph, John does not appear in those writings that are today included in the Apocryphal New Testament. The compilers of those collections seem to have been satisfied with how the biblical writers had dealt with John the Baptist, and therefore there was no need to expand those stories any further.

TO UNDERSTAND the significance of the part played by John the Baptist in the New Testament, we must look behind the finished Gospels. We have to ask why John was deemed so important to Jesus’s own story that not only are the births of both men described, but also their deaths, burials, and resurrections.

Each seems to have had his own followers. The account in the Gospels of John’s work is, however, incomplete. It is impossible to write a biography of him from the evidence in these books, the stories about the two men being too contradictory and difficult to harmonise or reconcile. One example is whether or not John baptised Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel and Mark’s say that he did; Luke denies that “fact”; and the Fourth Gospel (attributed to a different John) is non-committal.

Another problematical issue is whether the two men worked together. The Fourth Gospel describes a parallel ministry in which both men, John and Jesus, worked together as baptists; the other Evangelists categorically state that John was imprisoned before Jesus’s own ministry, without also saying that Jesus followed John’s career primarily as a baptiser to his fellow Jews.

WE ARE dependent on the New Testament for whatever historical evidence there may be about John the Baptist’s movements. Only a couple of near-contemporary references to him survive in non-Christian literary sources, and they are unlikely to be independent witnesses. Yet it is untrue to the nature of the canonical Gospels to assume that whatever we may read in them is by definition “true”, and can thus be taken as unvarnished history.

John was, nevertheless, important to Christians theologically. They tried to impose a strict demarcation line between him and Jesus. What they did, for the most part, was to show John’s inferiority to Jesus, and to present him as the “forerunner” — an Elijah-type figure. As such, John became a spokesman for Christian teaching.

DESPITE these later attempts, it is possible to detect in the written accounts a confusion concerning the two men. Their followers bestowed honorific titles on their leaders. Both men were consequently called “Messiah”, and both were known as “the prophet”, or as Elijah — see, for example, Matthew 14.1-13; Mark 6.14-16; 8. 28-29; Luke 1.59-66; John 1.19-28.

Passages such as these indicate that contemporary Christianity was aware of the conflicting traditions about both men. Christian writers and apologists had, therefore, to describe them differently, even if the world at large was confused by any similarities between them.

The New Testament itself is clear that both men had attracted many loyal followers, who maintained their teachings after the men’s deaths. Traditions about John, nurtured by his disciples, were used by Christians when their Gospels were being compiled.

In the Lord’s Prayer, so-called, in Luke 11.1, we see that this agenda of petitions for prayer was adapted from the Baptist’s original teachings, its words transferred and attributed to Jesus, as if he had been its originator. One motive for altering the traditions was that the Christians needed to woo John’s disciples to their own (Christian) cause.

SHOULD we then accept the accounts that show Jesus being baptised by John? Probably, yes. Both men wished to cleanse Judaism in preparation for a forthcoming Kingdom of God. Jesus had, therefore, begun his own ministry as a follower of John. A split seems to have soon occurred between the two, however, Jesus’s own splinter movement proclaiming that the coming One (prophesied by John) was Jesus himself. John’s followers, meanwhile, were, in general, unable to join their erstwhile colleagues in accepting that Jesus was the Christ. Much Christian polemic is thus intended to convince followers of John to change their allegiance and follow Jesus.

The New Testament describes John the Baptist as the first one to recognise and then proclaim Jesus in the way in which the Christians saw him. As the Christ, Jesus remains true to the mission that he was allegedly sent to fulfil. It is as a witness to this Christ that the (Christian) Church adopted John, and eventually canonised him as St John the Baptist.

Churches thereafter have often been dedicated to him, as the first witness to Jesus Christ and as a pointer to the latter’s significance. The Gospels’ picture triumphed over historicity, although Christian apologetic has benefited from the new portrayal of both men.

J. K. Elliott is Emeritus Professor of New Testament Textual Criticism at the University of Leeds.

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