from jesus to christ - the first christians

John the Baptist

What was the message of this preacher whom many believe baptized Jesus himself?


L. Michael White:

Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin


Our knowledge of the figure of John the Baptist is very limited. We have only those references to him in the Christian gospels, where he stands alongside of Jesus. We also have references to him in the Jewish historian, Josephus, who was writing toward the end of the first century. So John the Baptist is clearly a very important figure of the time. He was a renowned kind of eccentric, it appears, from the way that Josephus describes him. But he seems to have this quality of a kind of prophetic figure ... one who was calling for change. So he is usually thought of as being off in the desert wearing unusual clothes ... a kind of ascetic, almost. But what he is really is a critic of society, of worldliness, who seems to be calling for a change in religious life. But I think we have to think of John the Baptist primarily as one who was calling for a return to an intensely Jewish piety ... to follow the way of the Lord ... to make oneself pure ... to be right with God.

And why did he baptize people, and what was baptism?

John the Baptist, of course, is known for having practiced baptism. But then, so did lots of other people. We hear of other groups around this time, besides the Sadducees and the Pharisees and Essenes. There are the obscure little groups. We only know their names, but one of them is called Morning Dippers, or Hemero-Baptists, they're called. This seems to refer to a group that practiced self-washing ... ritual washing as an act of purification. We also know from the Dead Sea Scrolls, that the Qumran community practiced ritual washing as an act of purification as well, to keep themselves pure before God. So, the idea of baptizing, or washing as a sign of purity seems to come, actually, out of the Temple practice itself.

And what's the significance in terms of the quest for Jesus?

In terms of the Jesus tradition, then, to have Jesus either submit to baptism, or himself baptize others, suggests that we are part of a culture that was looking toward Temple purity as its ideal of religious life. By Temple purity, I mean the notion that one should be pure ... should be washed ... should be cleansed before you can go to the Temple and offer your sacrifices or your worship to God. So one of the concerns of the Temple, you see, and of the Priests who ran it, was that proper purity regulations be followed scrupulously. In some cases, however, it seems that these purity regulations, though, were made also a practice of kind ... what we might call personal piety among some Jewish groups. This seems to be what's going on in the Essene group. And it may also be what's reflected in the story of John, who practices baptism. And it seems to be that he calls for baptism as a sign of rededication or repurification of life in a typically Jewish way before God.

John Dominic Crossan:

Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University


That Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist is as certain as anything historians know about Jesus. It is somewhat clouded, however, in our present texts by the fact that later followers of Jesus thought it was not appropriate that the Messiah should be baptized, and apparently inferior, therefore, to John the Baptist. Jesus was baptized by John, and therefore he had to accept John's message, at least when he was being baptized, whether he changes is another question, later. But, he accepts it when he was being baptized, and John's message is, "God, very soon, imminently, any moment, is going to descend to eradicate the evil of this world in a sort of an apocalyptic consummation...."

One of the earliest statements we have... is a statement by Jesus that John is the greatest person ever born on earth, but the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John. Now, it's a marvelously ambiguous statement. The first half lauds John to the heavens, the second puts the least person in the Kingdom.... [ahead of him] But that means exactly what I would expect. It means Jesus is changing his vision of God and the Kingdom of God from what he has taken from John. He's not really denigrating John, but he is saying the Kingdom of God is not exactly what John was teaching.

Can you define what, in your opinion, the difference between them was?

The difference I see between John the Baptist and Jesus is, to use some fancy academic language that, John is an apocalyptic eschatologist. An eschatologist is somebody who sees that the problem of the world is so radical that it's going to take some kind of divine radical solution to solve it. One type, for example, is John. God is going to descend in some sort of a catastrophic event to solve the world. There is another type of eschatology. And that's what I think Jesus is talking [about]. I'm going to call it ethical eschatology. That is the demand that God is making on us, not us on God so much as God on us, to do something about the evil in the world. In an apocalypse, as it were, we are waiting for God. And in ethical eschatology, God is waiting for us. That's, I think, what Jesus is talking about in the Kingdom of God. It's demand for us to do something in conjunction with God. It is the Kingdom of God. But it's the Kingdom on earth of God.

Harold W. Attridge:

The Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament Yale Divinity School


Now in terms of the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist, what are the essential historical problems about that?

We know both from the pages of the gospels and also from Josephus..., that John was an apocalyptic preacher. That is, someone who was proclaiming a message of judgment and issuing a call for repentance to his contemporaries, in the light of what he predicted to be the imminent intervention into human history by God to judge the good and the evil. Jesus seems to have responded to that call...; the gospels then go on to say that Jesus was the one predicted by John. So one of the essential problems is the accuracy of that description of the relationship between the two. That is, John as the self-conscious and deliberate forerunner of Jesus. Most contemporary scholars would see that to be a construct developed by the early church to help explain the relationship between the two. Because for the early church it would have been something of an embarrassment to say that Jesus, who was in their minds superior to John the Baptist, had been baptized by him, and thereby proclaimed some sort of subordination to him, some sort of disciple relationship to him....

What was the significance of baptism and was it unique to John?

There were many teachers around the time of Jesus who were baptizing; baptismal or washing rituals were also a part of Judaism that didn't have this kind of eschatological orientation, or prophetic orientation, that we associate with John the Baptist.... From the gospels and from the testimony in Josephus we can learn that John's baptism had something of a prophetic or eschatological orientation. It was a way of expressing repentance in the face of imminent judgment.

Why was John killed? What impact might that have had on Jesus' life and career?

John the Baptist was killed because he was critical of the contemporary Herodian ruler, Herod Antipas. All of the sources agree on that, both Josephus and the testimony of the gospels. Exactly what was involved in that critique is not entirely clear. The material in the gospels suggests that it had to do with Herod's marital practices and his personal morality. There may have been something more political involved in John's condemnation of Herod, insofar as Herod Antipas was tied in intimately with the Roman imperial authorities. In any case, John was executed by Herod as a troublemaker and a political upstart. Now, we don't know how that impacted Jesus, whether on the basis of the death of John he reconsidered the apocalyptic message that had come from John or whether he wanted to continue it and extend it. Both are possible. He never takes a direct stance on that.

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published april 1998

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