The Immerser: John the Baptist

Excerpted & Aggregated from S. McKnight & J. Meier

For several decades theologians and scholars have made a clear distinction between the authentic Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, with no dispute of the importance of his historical identity and context. Much like with Jesus, there is a large amount of eisegesis in christianity when it comes to John the Baptist. Acknowledging the Jewishness of both John's ethnicity, heritage, and teachings is rarely broached. However, understanding the mission and aims of the authentic and historical Jesus requires also knowing the authentic John the Baptist. He is the Jewish sage that ritually immersed Jesus, witnessing the spiritual adoption of Jesus by God, and the birth of Jesus' ministry to Israel. So who then was John the Baptist? All the basic aspects of John the Baptist's life and teaching may be perceived to embody 2nd Temple Judaism and it's developing eschatology that later influenced the interpretations of Jesus.

When theologians and scholars look to Second Temple Judaism as the context in which to place John, they have generally aligned him with the Essenes. However, interesting and barely convenient parallels aside, John the Baptist should not be associated with the Essenes. Isaiah 40:3 was used in the rule book of the Qumran group to justify its existence as a community in the wilderness, but John does not appear to have used the verse in this way. While his baptism took place in the wilderness, people were expected to go home to their regular occupations. The notion that there was a "Baptist movement" — to which both the Essenes and John belonged — out of line with "mainstream Judaism" rests on outdated presuppositions regarding Second Temple Judaism. John and the Essenes used immersion, and both types of immersion may have been for purification, but this probably derives from the fact that issues of purity were very important to all groups of Jews at this time. John was an ascetic in a particular way, trusting that God would provide food enough for him to live in uncultivated regions; he rejected cultivated food like bread and wine, whereas the Essenes considered these staples of their diet, as did most others. His clothing of camel hair sackcloth indicated his humility before God; he did not wear the white garments of an Essene. He lived in the wild parts of the region around the lower Jordan, not on the western shores of the Dead Sea where the Qumran community was located. Physical proximity means nothing in terms of tracing influence or connection. In short, the overwhelming impression is that John should probably not be seen as having any direct relationship with the Essenes, least of all the isolated group at Qumran, whether prior to or during his own prophetic activity by the river Jordan. Having laid aside a connection between John and the Essenes at the outset, we can now proceed to investigate further the figure of John and his place within Second Temple Judaism. We will begin with a consideration of the nature of his baptism.

The Essenes
The Essenes are fairly well described in ancient sources, all dating from the first century. The earliest evidence comes from Philo of Alexandria, who writes about them in two different places (ca. 35-45 AD). In his Hypothetica (11.1-18) he describes them as living in many cities and villages of Judea. They reside together in communes in which there is no private property (houses, slaves, cattle, etc.); even clothing is group owned. They eat communally. They work at horticulture, animal husbandry, or crafts, and their income is put into a common fund administered by a treasurer. They are celibate old men. The very old and infirm are looked after by the others as if they were fathers. In Every Good Man Is Free (75-91), Philo notes that there are over 4,000 Essenes in Palestinian Syria. Here he states that they live in villages and avoid cities. They live together in communes in which there is no private property. They do not own slaves. They eat communally. They work on the land or on crafts. They do not make weapons, engage in business, or amass wealth. They do not offer sacrifices at the Temple. They study Scripture, especially on the Sabbath, when they assemble in orderly rows, youngest to eldest. They interpret Scripture allegorically. They maintain a constant state of ritual purity. They do not swear oaths. They welcome visitors of their own sect. Elder men are respected as fathers. They are treated by the authorities as self-governing.

Writing in 77 AD, some years after the quashing of the Jewish revolt against Rome and the destruction of the Temple, Pliny the Elder (
Natural History 5.15.73) notes simply that Essenes live on the western shore of the Dead Sea above Engeddi. They were celibate males, living communally, with no private property. It may be noted at this stage that the Essenes mentioned by Pliny are not located at the site of Qumran adjacent to caves where some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, for two reasons: first, Engeddi is described as being physically below the place where the Essenes lived; second, the site of Qumran was abandoned around 70 AD, and Pliny's reference is clearly to a situation after this date (Engeddi is "now like Jerusalem a heap of ashes", Natural History 70).

In his work
The Jewish War the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, writing in ca. 75 AD, mentions a certain Essene named John in the revolt against Rome (War 2.567) and gives us a detailed description of the Essenes (War 2.119-161), apparently deriving from someone who was closely involved in the sect or from his own investigative experience with it. He states that there are many Essenes in every town. They are celibate and very self-controlled males who live in communes, with communal ownership. They live to a great age. They despise wealth. They are all brothers with a single father. They keep their skin unoiled, regard the body as base and transient, and think that our "immortal souls" get entangled with it. In death, they believe their souls will go to a lovely place, but the souls of others will go to a dark dungeon of never ending punishment. They dress in white and never get a new garment or pair of shoes till one is worn out. They welcome visitors of their own sect and therefore travel with nothing but weapons (in case of highway robbery). They elect community officers, including one for visitors. They have four grades; a senior member will bathe if touched by a less pure junior member. They do nothing without orders from their superiors, except charitable acts, and presents to relatives are allowed only with permission.

They pray before dawn to the east (Jerusalem). They work at crafts untill the fifth hour and then assemble, wearing linen loincloths. They immerse in cold water and then put on their white garments, assemble in a special room, and eat communally a meal (of loaves). A priest says grace before and after the meal. Then they take off their white garments and go to work. In the evening they do the same, along with visitors. At meals they speak in turn and are generally rather quiet; no one will speak if most want silence. They will not spit in an assembly or to the right. They do not swear oaths. They study the Scriptures and also medicinal roots and minerals. They are very careful not to work on the Sabbath, and on that day they will not pick up any container or relieve themselves. On other days, when they need to relieve themselves, they go out to some uncultivated area and dig a hole and do it there, very modestly. They always wash afterwards.

A new member of Josephus' Essenes has to be on probation for a year and is given only a hatchet (for digging a toilet hole), a linen loincloth (for immersion and work), and a white garment. After a year he can immerse in their special purification water, but he cannot join in communal meals for another two years, and then only after taking great vows of morality, obedience, self-control, and secrecy. Those guilty of serious crimes are expelled, which is tantamount to death by starvation, but sometimes they are taken back out of compassion. The Essenes have their own court of no less than 100 men to decide verdicts. Anyone blaspheming God or Moses is punished with death. Josephus notes that many of them were tortured to death by the Romans but showed great courage. Some of those well-versed in sacred books, purification, and the sayings of the prophets claim to predict the future and seldom err. Josephus also notes here that there is another order of Essenes who marry for the sake of procreation but who are otherwise the same as those he has described.

Before we begin the discussion concerning John's relationship with the Essenes, we should highlight a key characteristic of John that would be completely out of place if he were (or had been at one time) part of the Essene movement. Our sources describe the Essenes as comprised of groups of men who had self-consciously separated from other Jews and bound themselves together by a complex set of rules focused on communal living and shared resources, purification, and a pure meal. The rules ensured that each member lived a pious and pure life. By keeping to the rules and by truly worshipping God correctly, each member (and his family, if married) had the assurance of salvation. As for John, he apparently did not live at an Essene settlement (let alone at Qumran). He was a loner, whereas the Essenes appear to have been concerned with living in community. In fact, nothing suggests that John wished to found a sect, quasi-Essene or otherwise. Even allowing for considerable diversity within the Essene movement as evidenced by material as different as the Damascus Document and the Community Rule, the very fact that these sources define a distinctive set of community norms sets them in striking contrast to what we find in the independent presentation of John in Josephus' account and in the Gospels.

Scholars who think that John was an Essene (or former Essene) sometimes stress the similarities and attribute any differences to his supposed status as a "non-orthodox" member of the sect. There is a widespread tendency to identify the Qumran community as the definitive Essene community, when in fact we have no way of knowing whether the Qumran group was mainstream or marginal in relation to the larger Essene movement. Otto Betz has suggested that John may once have been a member of the Qumran community but later separated from it to pursue an independent career. Daniel Schwartz has stated that whether or not John spent any time at Qumran, "it is clear that this ascetic community by the Dead Sea shows us the setting according to which he is to be understood." Schwartz usefully summarizes what some scholars would see as the key parallels between John and the Essenes: John the Baptist and Qumran "shared the same desert"; had a special interest in Isa. 40:3; practiced asceticism; were concerned with ritual purity and immersion; had a priestly background (Luke 1:5; 1QS 6:1-3, 21-22; 8:1; 9:7); called for the sharing of property (Luke 3:11; 1QS 3:2; 5:2; 6:19-22); and had a special sensitivity to incest (Mark 6:17-18; CD 4:17-18).

A few of these points do not need extensive discussion. For example, it is hard to see how a priestly background means anything as far as affiliation with sectarian groupings, since priests and Levites were found in all the major Jewish sects. Chief priests may have had a special affinity with Sadducean views (Acts 4:1; 5:17;
b. Pesah. 57a), but there were no hard-and-fast rules.

John's baptism in water may very well have shared common concerns with Essene immersion. His baptism does seem to have been concerned with the removal of ritual impurity. However, such a concern does not link him exclusively with the Essenes, whose characteristic purification ritual was, according to our sources, of a particular type and ultimately connected with the communal eating of a pure meal. Concern with ritual purity and immersion is very strongly attested in later rabbinic tradition; nearly twenty-five percent of Mishnaic law concerns purity. It can be conclusively shown that this rabbinic concern with purity can be traced back to Pharisaic circles of the first century. The Essenes may have gone further than the Pharisees and later rabbis in this regard. Josephus notes that senior members of the Essene sect bathed (immersed?) after physical contact with a junior member (War 2.150). But concern with ritual purity and immersion was not monopolized by the Essenes. Immersion baths (miqva'ot) for the purposes of removing ritual impurity, which have been found in so many archaeological sites from the first century, testify to the widespread belief that this impurity needed to be removed. A concern with ritual purity seems to have been characteristic of Second Temple Judaism in general. Nearly two hundred years later, the Mishnah would record discussions apparently between Pharisees and Sadducees in which issues of purity were of fundamental concern.

The sharing of property as outlined by John in the tradition recorded in Luke 3:11 is not necessarily connected with an Essene or sectarian community; the practice of sharing appears to be general and based on the ethical teaching found in prophetic literature. John advises those who come to him that "
the one who has two tunics should share with the one who has none, and the one who has food should do likewise." It is not at all implied that this sharing is to be done only within some group of John's disciples or in a wider Essene movement. The root of this teaching may be traced to Ezek. 18:5-9, where it is written:
If someone is righteous and does justice and righteousness ... if one does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, and does not commit robbery, gives his bread to the hungry, and covers the naked with clothing ... if he walks in my statutes and observes my ordinances, acting faithfully, then he is righteous and will surely live, says the Lord YHWH.

That one should give one's extra clothing and food to those in need is certainly part of the moral law. John advised a more radical charity and disbursement of possessions than was commonly the case in almsgiving — his definition of "extra" appears to have been drastic — but one could still possess very basic clothing and food for oneself. There is no indication that he advised people to live communally with entirely shared resources, as we find in the Community Rule (1QS 6:19-23), or to give two days' wages per month to a charitable fund administered by group leaders, as we find in the Damascus Document (CD 14:12-16). Moreover, if genuine, the specific advice John gives to toll collectors and soldiers in Luke 3:12-13 would not have been considered adequate by the Essenes as a prescription for righteousness. John apparently did not ask toll collectors or soldiers to leave their occupations and join a commune.

John's sensitivity to incest is, again, not reflective of a sectarian mentality but is based on Lev. 18:16. Furthermore, in Lev. 20:21, it is explicitly stated, "
If a man takes his brother's wife, it is impurity; he has uncovered the nakedness of his brother. They shall be childless." Illicit bodily connection between people resulted in ritual bodily impurity and the curse of childlessness. John did not attack Antipas because he had technically married his niece. Marriage of uncles and nieces is forbidden in the Damascus Document (CD 6:17-18), but for John that was not the point. His case rested on biblical law.

In the end, John may have known about the Essenes and he may have known some of their teachings. However, John was most certainly not an Essene. There were many "Baptist" movements in the 2nd Temple period and while his may have stood out, it was still one of many. We do know John's movement stood out and continued to exist after the crucifixion of Jesus, but again this doesn't preclude association with the Essenes.

Isaiah 40:3
Many theologians have suggested that the employment of Isa. 40:3 in Community Rule Scroll (1QS) 8:13-16 and 9:19-20 demonstrates that John "must have been familiar with Essene thoughts regarding the coming of the Messianic age." However, as noted above, parallels do not themselves justify assuming any direct influence between groups within Second Temple Judaism. Use of a scriptural text in itself cannot be seen as meaningful. It is the similarities and differences in interpretation that will mark out individuals and groups as related or distinct, not the mere use of the same scriptural texts. The Hebrew Scriptures were the property of all groups, and each made use of this resource in varying ways. Moreover, we may expect similarities in the use of Scripture, but, as Samuel Sandmel has stated, "In the variety of Judaisms, as represented by terms such as Pharisees, Sadducees, Qumran ... it is a restricted area which makes each of these groups distinctive within the totality of Judaisms; it is the distinctive which is significant for identifying the particular, and not the broad areas in common with other Judaisms."

Therefore, when we consider the issue of Isa. 40:3, used in regard to John by the Gospel writers and by certain Essenes in regard to their own purposes, we need to look closely at any differences in interpretation that may mark out the two as being distinct. Only if the interpretation is precisely the same can we suppose that the two may have been linked. For the moment, we will consider the issues with a presupposition that the Gospels accurately reflect the fact that John made special mention of the verse in regard to his own purpose.

Isa. 40:3 is used by all four Gospel authors to sum up what John wanted to achieve. As noted above, in 1QS use is made of Isa. 40:3 on two occasions, 8:13-16 and 9:19-20. In the Isaiah scrolls from the Dead Sea Scrolls collection, the form is identical to what is found in the later Masoretic Text. In 1QS 8:13-16 and 9:19-20 it is understood that the disembodied voice is calling, "
Prepare in the wilderness the way of YHWH." In other words, it is not the reading reflected in the Septuagint, where the voice is of someone in the wilderness. In the Community Rule, the voice is not itself calling in the wilderness, but it exhorts people to prepare in the wilderness the way of the Lord. 1QS 8:15-16 explains that the path is the study of the Law, in order that they may do all that has been revealed from age to age. The "children of righteousness," the members of the community, are to "walk perfectly together in all that has been revealed to them. This is the time for preparing the way into the wilderness . . ." (1QS 9:19-20). In other words, the placement of the voice is different in the Septuagint and 1QS. For clarity, the difference may be summarized as follows:
Voice somewhere calls for preparation of the way in the wilderness
Voice of someone in the wilderness calls for preparation of the way

The synoptic Gospels follow the Septuagint exactly (Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4), while the Fourth Gospel conflates Isa. 40:3 (John 1:23). The voice is of one calling in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord." By implication, the way begins there, in association with the one who calls in the wilderness, namely, John. Now it may be argued that since this is the reading of the Septuagint, primarily used by Diaspora Jews, the Gospel writers knew and copied it and applied it to John; John himself could not have accepted that reading of the text. Certainly, it is unlikely that John used a Greek translation of Scripture as his authoritative text; he most probably used a Hebrew version and knew Aramaic translation traditions from synagogue readings.

However, the Septuagint represents interpretive norms of the time it was translated (third century BC) that may have been current as much in the Land of Israel as in the Diaspora. For example, it is intriguing that one-third of the deviations between the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Masoretic Text are along the lines of the Septuagint and that one text of Jeremiah found near Qumran (40161) is close to being a Hebrew model of the version in the Septuagint. Furthermore, four Greek biblical manuscripts were found near Qumran, which indicates that Greek versions were read in the heart of the Land of Israel. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls not only that the Hebrew text of the Scriptures could vary, but also that interpretive norms could vary, to an astonishing degree. We do not know for certain how the Aramaic translators of the passage in the synagogues of the first century rendered this verse, but it is most likely that they translated it similarly to the way it is found in the later Targum Pseudo-Jonathan; in other words, since the Hebrew was vague, they left it vague. This means that it was up to scribes and other teachers of the Law to make of the verse what they wished and to interpret it along the lines of either the Qumran manuscripts (and the later Masoretic Text) or the Septuagint. In other words, given the words as found in the Hebrew text, the placement of the quotation marks could be debated, and the voice itself could have been that of someone in the wilderness or a disembodied voice from anywhere.

The location of a sectarian community at Qumran on the edge of the Dead Sea, within the region of the wilderness of Judea, seems to correlate very well with what we have in 1QS. The community of 1QS exists in the wilderness, and Qumran is certainly located there. The employment of Isa. 40:3 may well have been a direct result of a reading of the verse in the light of the chosen location. It was necessary for this community itself to exist in the wilderness in order to make straight the paths of God and walk along them. This passage in the Community Rule is, in fact, the strongest indicator in favor of 1QS being related to the Essene group living at Qumran itself, for in an earlier version of the Community Rule (perhaps used by other celibate Essene groups not living in the wilderness), the passage requiring wilderness residence, and therefore the reference to Isa. 40:3, is absent (4QSd = 4QSb), though the latter reference (1QS 9:19-20) appears in an intermediate version (4QSe).

However, John does not appear to have asked people to remain with him in the wilderness. His teaching suggests that he thought they should go home to their own towns and jobs — even as toll collectors and soldiers (Luke 3:10-14) — and when we meet disciples of John in the Gospels (e.g., in Mark 2:18-19) they are never on their way back to a base camp in the wilderness. In fact, the easiest understanding of the life setting of Mark 2:18-19 suggests that the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees in Galilee were keeping a fast at the same time. There is no suggestion that John wished to form an exclusive community in the desert dedicated to the learning of the Law, frequent ablutions, a holy meal, and a host of rules and regulations governing life together. John seems to have wanted people to be obedient to the Law in anticipation of judgment and to accept his own teaching in this regard, but to remain where they usually were. He may have been one who was calling in the wilderness, but "the way of the Lord," having begun there with him, led repentant people to a life of righteousness in their own hometowns.

Therefore, if John did use the text of Isa. 40:3a as part of his prophetic call, the fact that both the community of 1QS and the disciples of John may have found it important does not amount to anything very significant. The Hebrew Scriptures were the property of all groups in Second Temple Judaism. If the same text was used, but with a completely different hermeneutical emphasis, this shows that the two groups were not related. The mere use of a text proves nothing in terms of relationship.

Having said all this, it cannot of course be assumed that John himself made special use of Isa. 40:3 in relation to his purposes. The evidence for his employment of the verse is to be found in Christian material, and Christians may have had their own particular reasons for connecting the verse with John. Christian exegesis of Isa. 40:3 identified the "Lord" whose path was being prepared with Jesus, though the verse in fact refers to the Lord God, YHWH, not to the Messiah. Christians may have interpreted the verse as a reference to John's activity and applied it to him, having made the prior identification of the Lord as being Jesus. What is significant is that John apparently did not use the verse to justify the establishment of an actual wilderness community.

Baptism and the "Baptism Movement"
John made no statement known to us that he considered the Temple in Jerusalem defiled and therefore irrelevant to the way of righteousness, whereas this was a fundamental belief of the Essenes, including the Qumran group (IQS 1:11-13; 8:6-10; 9:4-5). The view that John participated, with Essenes, in an unorthoodox, anti-Temple "Baptist movement" out of line with "mainstream" Judaism is based on two untenable assumptions: first, that there existed a kind of "mainstream" Judaism that was not particularly concerned with ritual purity or immersions, and second, that there were numerous groups exhibiting anti-Temple sentiment in pre-70 Judaism for whom immersions were a substitution for Temple sacrifices.

Contrary to the first assumption, all groups would have used immersions as prescribed in Torah. Later Jewish sects mentioned by patristic authors such as Epiphanius and Hegesippus — the
Nasaraioi, the Masbotheans, the Daily Bathers — need not necessarily have existed at the time of John, despite what Epiphanius states in regard to the Daily Bathers (Panarion 19.5.6-7). Epiphanius is not the most reliable historical source; he is notorious for his invention of heretical groups out of hearsay. Even if they did exist in John's time, the characteristic of all of these groups is extremism — frequently repeated rites of immersion — as we get with the Essenes. But no one has managed to prove that John was concerned that his disciples participate in repeated daily ablutions.

Issues of ritual purity were extremely important to the Pharisees and later rabbis also, as the sixth division of the Mishnah well demonstrates, but — contrary to the second assumption noted above — nothing in our sources connects purification rituals with an anti-Temple stance. Immersion was never a substitute for Temple sacrifices. In the
Community Rule, substitution for the sacrifices of the Temple is made through individual members of the community doing good works to effect atonement (1QS 9:2-6). A similar notion is found in Philo's writings, where true sacrifice is made by the worshipper bringing the self to God (On the Special Laws 1.269-72). Philo himself could explain that when the heart was pure no sacrifices were strictly necessary (On the Life of Moses 6.2.107; On Noah's Work as a Planter 108), but the ritual of the Temple was still required to train one in piety and implant in one a zeal for holiness (Who Is the Heir 123). Moreover, evidence in apocryphal and pseudepigraphal literature for people atoning for sin through various procedures shows that repentance and faith need not at all reflect rejection of the Temple cult; the evidence suggests only that these were seen as alternatives or complements to the Temple rites in some circles, especially, one may imagine, in the Diaspora.

What all this suggests is that if John's baptism had to do with ridding the body of ritual impurity, as did other Jewish immersions, then this would tally with the concerns of the people of his time, for whom issues of purity were becoming increasingly important. Parallels may indicate a mentality, rather than a movement; they may indicate that different parties participated in the same thought-world, but they do not show us a pattern of influences from one group to another. General influences may have occurred naturally, without direct contact between groups. It would have been enough for some people just to hear about a group that aimed for optimum purity by means of frequent ablutions to start imitating this practice in order not to be outdone.

It is generally understood that John was ascetic in his lifestyle. John's asceticism is attested in a saying of Jesus, preserved in the Q tradition, where it is claimed that John came "neither eating bread nor drinking wine" (Lk 7:33-34; Mt 11:18-19; Lk 1:15). This is probably not meant to indicate that John ate and drank almost nothing, despite the exaggerated version of Mt 11:18-19, where John is set up as an extreme antithesis of Jesus. Rather, taking the statement as written, we may assume his diet did not include bread and wine, the usual fare of townsfolk. Therefore, John's asceticism was of a particular type. It should not be understood in the light of later Christian asceticism, in which monks went out to the desert in order to defeat the powers of sin resident in the flesh by denying all comforts of the body. Nor should John's lifestyle be classed with the Essenes' supposed asceticism simply because their asceticism is thought to be out of line with orthodox Judaism.

He may have been a
nazir having at some point taken the Nazirite vow, but we cannot know for sure. He may have had long and matted hair simply because he lived in the wilderness and did not attend to his appearance. His diet may have not included wine simply because these were not attainable in the wilderness because it's not found naturally. It can be said that the jews probably saw him as either either a nazir or someone resembling a nazir.

We are told that John wore "camel hair and a skin tie around his loins": (Mk 1:6; Mt 3:4). Camel hair was used for sackcloth and sackcloth was highly appropriate for John to wear. This was not because he wanted to emulate Elijah, but because it was the appropriate attire for someone who was repentant. It was used for mourning but it also indicated repentance (Jonah 3:5-10; Mt 11:2; Lk 10:13). It was not necessarily a mark of asceticism, but it was worn in particular by those who sought God (1 Kgs 21:27-29; Isa 58:3-5; Neh 9:1-2) This may have struck the jews of that time as prophetic but the uniform was by no means "prophetic" in general. Sackcloth was
not the uniform of the Essenes, as the Essenes always dressed in white. The reference to a skin tie would have been understood as a clear reference to Elijah, however, there is also reference to Isaiah wearing sackcloth (Isa. 20:2) and two Elijah-like prophets in Revelation (11:3) also wear it. Ultimately, John wore sackcloth not to associate himself with prophets of the distant past but to demonstrate his humility before God and an attitude of continued repentance, to keep him on the path of Torah.

In following this lifestyle of total dependance on what God provided, John is the perfect example for someone whose trust is in God and was a living paradigm of the advice Jesus himself gives his disciples according to the Gospel tradition (Mt 6:25-34; Lk 12:22-31). John may well have been used as an illustration of just how God would provide for those who simply trusted themselves to his care. In eating no bread, only what could be found naturally, there was no need to sow, reap, or gather wheat into barns. Old sackcloth requires no toiling or spinning. Jesus may once have proven the point by his own action, for he seems to have chosen to live as John lived after his baptism by John in the Jordan. Just to look at this point briefly, in the first account of Jesus' sojourn in the wilderness (Mk 1:12-13), Jesus is driven out there by the Holy Spirit, where he stays forty days to experience temptation by Satan the Adversary. The form of temptation is not specifically described, and it is not suggested that he fasted. Mark states that Jesus was "
with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him" (Mk 1:13). The word for "angels" seems to have had the sense of "provide with the necessities of life" (Mt 27:55; Mk 15:41), which includes food, shelter, clothing, and whatever else may be required by the one being looked after in any particular instance. Therefore, in the account of Matthew (4:1-11; Lk 4:1 -13), where the Marcan temptation in the wilderness is combined with a separate Q tradition of specific temptations by Satan, Jesus ends a period of fasting by being "looked after" by the angels (Mt 4:11); it is understood that they gave him food. In Mark, the reference to angels providing the means of life seems to indicate that, through the mercy of God, Jesus found enough food and drink to survive in the wilderness for a long period of time, as John had done.

Of course, given this tradition of the teaching of Jesus, John may have been recognized as living reasonably well in the wilderness. If God provided for those who trusted in him, then it would have been good if John looked fairly healthy and fit. If John fasted, then this was quite in keeping with usual Jewish practice and does not mean that he fasted to excess. Fasting was, after all, traditionally associated with repentance and piety.

In summary, John's asceticism was of a certain type — one that aimed to prove a point by means of a wilderness diet and very rough clothing, which indicated total humility. We need not assume, though, that an ascetic "movement" sprung from John's or others example. As Martin Goodman notes, the fame of such men as John "
suggests that this sort of extreme asceticism was exceptional." While exceptional, however, it may have been set up as exemplary action. Philo noted that people of great goodness would cultivate solitude and avoid cities (Every Good Man Is Free 63; On Abraham 22-23; On the Special Laws 2.44; On the Life of Moses 2.34), and he viewed the renunciation of property positively (On the Change of Names 32). In later rabbinic literature, the concern about tomorrow's food is an example of little faith (b. Sot. 48b; Mekilta Exod. 16:40;16:9); it would follow that having no concern about food and completely trusting in God's providence are examples of faith. This same connection between faith in God and trusting in him to provide food is found in Jesus' teaching at Mt 6:25-34 (Lk 12:22-31) and in his specific prayer, where God is asked to provide each day our necessary food (Mt 6:11; Lk 11:3). Those who pray are trusting in God to provide food, rather than worrying about producing it themselves.

While worrying about food is a sign of little faith, the extreme measures of John and the extreme advice given to his disciples by Jesus are not found in later rabbinic literature. John's example would, however, have been recognized as indicating the extent of his faith in God. Such a degree of faith in God would naturally have attracted people who wished to hear words of wisdom from such men.

The Location of John & his ministry
The proximity of John and Qumran has proved intriguing to several theologians, but, as stated above, nothing suggests that John established a desert community that practiced frequent purificatory bathing or even that he fitted into one. In immersing people possibly as close as ten kilometers or so away from Qumran, he likely knew about a community there and about Essenes in general, and he may have been familiar with some of their beliefs. But geographical proximity does not in itself require influence or connection. He was closer to large towns like Jericho, Abila, or Livias. Thus all kinds of movements and ideas may have influenced John.

John is described by Luke as "living in the wildernesses" (Lk 1:80), which may refer to his propensity to live in uncultivated areas in general. As stated above, the wilderness was uncultivated land. In Greek there is also a sense of the area being far from human habitation. The crowds go out "into the wilderness" to hear John (Mt 11:7; Lk 7:24; Mk 1:4; Mt 3:1). The reference to John living in these uncultivated areas comes at the end of the nativity story of John in Luke's Gospel and is ambiguous. In full, it reads: "
And the child [John] grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the wildernesses till the day of his public appearance to Israel." This has suggested to theologians that John must have grown up with the Essenes in Qumran. As Otto Betz states, "How could this little child, the only son of aged parents, grow up in the wilderness? Well, the Essenes lived there, leading a kind of monastic life." Since Josephus notes that the Essenes took other people's children and instructed them (War 2.120), Some think John might have been such a child.

However, Luke 1:80 is surely not to be read as indicating that a little child was sent off into the wildernesses, let alone the wilderness of Judea around Qumran. The first part of the verse closes John's infancy narrative in the same way that similar words close that of Jesus at Luke 2:40. Luke 1:80 is a formulaic, stereotypical statement derived from passages relating to Isaac, Samson, and Samuel (Gen. 21:8; Judg. 13:24; 1 Sam. 2:21). Since Luke has constructed the Baptist birth story to echo the history of these figures from Israel's past, we should expect the description of John's growth also to echo scriptural precedents. The second part concerning the wildernesses prefigures what Luke returns to in chapter three; John is positioned there when the word of God comes to him. Luke 3:2 reads: "
The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness." This, as Raymond Brown notes, is "an appropriate continuation of 1:80" designed to make a "smooth transition" from the infancy narrative to the beginning of John's prophetic activity Therefore, it seems that in 1:80 Luke is setting the scene for what he is about to say in 3:2. It is unlikely, then, that John grew up in the wildernesses (note the plural) from babyhood.

In the Fourth Gospel, John is described as being "
in Bethany beyond the Jordan" (John 1:28) and "at Aenon near Salim, because there was much water" (John 3:23). These places are known only approximately. Only Matthew describes the location as the wilderness of Judea (Mt 3:1). In fact, Matthew describes it as such rather arbitrarily, because he is linking the placement of John with the province from which people came: Judea (Mt 3:5). In other words, according to Matthew, John did not go into the region about the Jordan; rather, people came out from there.

Luke's reference to the "region about the Jordan" (Lk 3:3) may indicate that John roamed up and down, so we do not need to tie him to one locality with any great precision. If he gathered his food from the wild, he would have had to wander, and while the lower reaches of the Jordan may have held some attraction on account of their symbolic values, he may have moved much farther north as well. The region about the lower Jordan is bleak. The river lies in a trench well below the level of the valley, beneath sides of unstable marl that are impassable when wet. There are trees growing closely together and great masses of reeds, which makes access difficult. Venomous vipers and wild boars still live there, and in John's time other wild beasts may have roamed around the banks of the river. The sixth-century Madaba mosaic map shows a lion chasing a deer not far to the east, and Mark's Gospel probably quite rightly notes in regard to Jesus' sojourn in the wilderness that he was "
with the wild animals" (Mark 1:13).

There are two natural fords of the Jordan River near Jericho, the "fords of the Jordan" (Judg. 3:28) and "fords of the wilderness" (2 Sam. 15:28). It may have been around these that John first baptized, since they allow easy crossing of the river. However, the Jordan is not a raging torrent and can be crossed at other places by a small boat. John may have gone elsewhere up the Jordan valley where there was a good supply of water for baptism, as Luke 3:3 indicates.

In conclusion, John's sphere of activity was mainly along the Jordan valley, Samaria, and Perea, not in the wilderness of Judea bordering the Dead Sea. Therefore, he did not share the same desert with the community at Qumran. Even if he did, and even though he may have once baptized people in the Jordan at a point fairly close to the Dead Sea, this does not mean he was associated with the Qumran group. Luke 1:80 is weak evidence on which to base a suggestion that John may have grown up at Qumran; the verse may be explained by looking at the literary purposes of the Gospel writer. Moreover, we may remember also that only Pliny specifically mentions the Essenes in connection with the western shore of the Dead Sea, above Engeddi. Philo writes that the Essenes live in many cities and villages of Judea (
Hypothetica 11.1), though he later qualifies this by stating that they prefer villages (Every Good Man Is Free 75-76). Josephus also writes that they are in every town and village (Ant. 2.119-20). Both Philo and Josephus note that they number 4,000 men (Hypothetica 11.1; Ant. 18.18), which presumably is a rough approximation. Whatever the case, the wilderness community at Qumran would appear to be the exception to the usual localization of Essenes in urban centers or in villages. If one really wanted to speculate about Essene influence on John on the grounds of close proximity, one might do better to look to urban centers and villages close to the Jordan River.

Essay excerpted from:
Taylor, Joan E.
The Immerser: John the Baptist. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1997.
Martin, Raymond A.
Studies in the Life and Ministry of the Historical Jesus. University Press of America, 1995
Meier, John P.
A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Doubleday, 1994
-All rights reserved to the respective authors

Excerpted & Aggregated from S. McKnight & J. Meier

Before looking at what John may have taught, it should be noted that all of what John taught, his type of revivalist Judaism, is found within Christian literature, and therefore its integrity is somewhat difficult to assess in relation to other 2nd Temple teachings. We have no independent body of material, or list of John's sayings, collected by any Jewish group. John does not appear in rabbinic literature. As we have seen, what Josephus states concerning John has been useful for understanding the nature of his immersion, but he tells us very little about John's message, other than that he wanted Jews to live lives obedient to God. This, however, may be worth reiterating. All the discussion so far points to John's turning back those who had not been obedient to the Law, to a life of obedience.

John's radical assertion that outer purifications were ineffective without inner purity, was, of course, a teaching in itself. However, it is likely that John not only proclaimed his immersion, but also made it the core of a small body of teaching that encompassed more than immersion. For example, if he deemed purifications ineffective, he may also have considered other pious or ritual acts, most especially praying and fasting, as ineffective in themselves. "Ineffective" here means that God would not accept these acts, as Josephus spells out in regard to John's immersion. The most strongly attested and well-known evidence indicates that John's message had an ‘end times’ perspective. This perspective, though, does not preclude a concern with ethical conduct in the here and now.

John the Teacher

In the New Testament John is called a "teacher" (Luke 3:12) or, in Aramaic and Hebrew, a "rabbi" (John 3:26). Fittingly, then, he had disciples (Mark 2:18; 6:29; Matt. 9:14; 11:2; 14:12; Luke 5:33; 7:18; 11:1; John 1:22,32,35,37; 3:25,27; Acts 19:1-7) or, more correctly, "students". But the New Testament writings consistently avoid John's teaching. Luke alone attributes to John material comprising ethical sayings (Luke 3:10-14; 11:1). Some disciples stayed close to John (Matt. 11:2 = Luke 7:18; Mark 6:29; Matt. 14:12), but many went back to their own homes (Matt. 9:14 = Mark 2:18 = Luke 5:33).

How did one become a disciple of John? Not by immersion. Immersion completed a process of becoming clean inwardly and outwardly; it was not an initiation into a select group of disciples. One became a disciple, a "student," of another person by receiving instruction from that person. It seems quite clear from our sources that people became disciples of John prior to their immersion. This is only logical, for people needed to know how to attain inner purity before immersion took place (Luke 3:9-14). John was seen to have the answers. Josephus describes people who were highly excited by John and ready to do anything he advised them. Some of those he immersed may have wished to stay close to him, receiving further instruction and remaining loyal devotees. Nevertheless, the implication of John's teaching in Luke 3:10-14 is that he expected that most would return to their usual jobs in towns and villages.

As in other religions, so in Judaism discipleship was not a loose relationship with a person whom one respected as a reputable scholar or sage, but a well-defined relationship entailing close involvement between disciple and teacher. A disciples had the obligation of looking after his master/teacher in quite a close way. In return, the teacher formally taught his disciples a body of teaching. However, it appears in Second Temple Judaism that, if someone was considered to be a prophet, then those who wished to learn the prophet's particular prophetic teaching were also probably known as disciples. Those considered prophet-teachers would probably not have taught their disciples in the same formal way found in later rabbinic academies. Nevertheless, the process of the disciples' learning was based on the teacher giving instruction in an accepted pedagogical framework. As we read frequently in regard to Jesus, he "taught" his disciples and had a body of teaching (Mark 1:22; 4:2; Matt. 7:29; Luke 19:47; Acts 1:1), which the disciples undoubtedly would have sought to learn and commit to memory, as was customary.

The content of John's teaching was most likely "the way of God" or "the way of righteousness." In the Jesus tradition, John the Baptist is said to have come "in the way of righteousness" (Matt. 21:32). The Pharisees and Herodians of Mark 12:14 (Luke 20:21) tell Jesus, "Teacher, we know that you are true, and do not take notice of any person, for you take no regard for people's position, but truly teach the way of God." "The way of God" could itself be abbreviated as "the way," as is shown in Acts (9:2; 18:25-6; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). The original Jesus Movement used general terminology to refer specifically to their ideology, as did the members of the Qumran community (1QS 4:12; 9:16-21; CD 1:9, 13; 1:16,20-21). To walk in the way of God or of righteousness meant complete obedience to all aspects of the Law, both in one's heart and in one's actions. The integral connection between all aspects of the Law is found in Deut. 10:12-13:
And now Israel — what does YHWH ask of you? To fear YHWH your God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve YHWH your God with all your heart and all your soul, and to keep the commandments of YHWH and his statutes which I [Moses] command you this day for your good.

To make the metaphor complete, it is necessary to walk along the way, as Prov. 8:20 has it. The way of the Lord is the Law of the Lord: "
Those of the house of Jacob will say, 'Come and let us walk in the teaching of the law of YHWH.' " With these biblical metaphors in view, it is significant that in rabbinic literature the word halakha, a religious ruling, comes from the verb "halakh", meaning "to walk." The religious ruling is a "walking" along the way of righteousness which is God's Law.

Here we are not dealing with technical terminology that would link John with a specific movement — the Essenes or the Pharisees, for example — but with general terminology common to all kinds of Jewish groups. For example, in the Dead Sea Scrolls the phrase "ways of true righteousness" (1QS 4:2) reflects the same consciousness and conceptual framework found in Pharisaic and later rabbinic Judaism. The Teacher of Righteousness (lQpHab 1:13; 2:2; 5:10, etc.) was precisely a teacher who enabled his disciples to walk along God's ways and avoid ways of iniquity and falsehood. The phrase "teacher of righteousness" ("righteousness-teacher") is found also in Midrashic literature.

"Righteousness" here is, of course, not a fixed concept. Much would have been understood by all Jews as comprising righteous behavior and piety, founded on Scripture, but the definition of "righteousness," like "purity," depended on one's own particular perspective. One person's righteousness may not be that of another. Individual teachers prescribed individual interpretations of Scripture that defined righteousness for their own disciples in particular ways. We know this from the various halakhot of rabbinic literature, which are rulings by individual teachers given to their disciples. Rabbinic literature gives ample evidence of debates between teachers on correct interpretations and proper rulings. To define a set of particular teachings on righteousness for one's disciples did not mean that one was forming an exclusive sect, though a sect could grow out of the interpretations and ideas of a particular teacher, as we know from the early "sect" in Jerusalem, the disciples of Jesus. A "sect" was, in a sense, a philosophical school within Judaism, based on specific interpretations and beliefs, but still founded on the same bedrock of Scripture. John might have been understood by some to have founded a "sect" or a "school" comprised of disciples, but essentially what we have in our sources is a small remnant of a group that was once larger.

We never find a fully fledged "Baptist sect" in evidence in the first century. The story of Apollos in Acts 18 does not indicate that a "Baptist sect" existed in Ephesus. The impression gained is that the disciples of John were no more cohesive as a group than were the disciples of other teachers of the time. They probably endured for a while, but were simply one small part of the immense diversity, within Second Temple Judaism.

Certainly, those who had been to John for immersion considered themselves to be his disciples. Put simply, one could be John's disciple and still not yet be immersed, but one probably could not be immersed by John without being his disciple. If people believed that he was proclaiming his immersion under prophetic inspiration, they may well have wished to stay with him for a period of time to learn from him. Once home, they may have distinguished themselves as "disciples of John" by following the basic teachings he prescribed and by advocating the necessity of "an immersion of repentance" for those who had strayed from the Law or who would otherwise not count themselves as righteous. Fundamental in this would have been the explication of repentance.

In the description given in Luke's infancy narrative John's call to repentance is considered to be his most distinctive characteristic. In Hebrew, the word "repentance," has as its root the verb
shubh "to turn"; the same was true of Aramaic, meaning "repent." The words of the angel Gabriel in Luke's nativity story stress that John's role was to turn people back from unrighteousness to righteousness: "He will be filled with the Holy Spirit [i.e., he will be a prophet], even from his mother's womb, and many of the children of Israel will turn back to the Lord their God. And he [John] will go before him [God] in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn back the hearts of fathers to their children" (Mal. 4:5-6; Sir. 48:10) "and the disobedient to the purpose of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke l:15-17). Zechariah's prophecy at the circumcision of John reflects the same understanding of John's role (Luke 1:76-79):
And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways: to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,
on account of the innermost feelings of mercy of our God, by which the sunrise from on high has broken upon us7 to shine on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to make our feet straight along the way of peace.

In the prophecy of Zechariah, John prepares the ways of the Lord, which in Luke 1:15-17 is an activity interpreted as "turning people back" to God from disobedience of the Law to obedience or righteousness. This is done "to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins." In other words, knowledge of salvation comes in the forgiveness of sins; people can be assured of being spared condemnation at the final judgment because their sins have been forgiven. Repentance requires people to turn back to the right path. Zechariah's prophecy coheres with the imagery and language of texts like the Wisdom of Solomon 5:6-7, where those under judgment say:
So we have strayed from the way of truth;
the light of righteousness has not shone upon us,
and the sun has not risen upon us.
We have explored every path of lawlessness or ruin,
and we have wandered through trackless deserts,
and the way of the Lord is one we have not known.

For John, repentance was clearly not something that simply blossomed in the heart full of emotion and good intentions. It had nothing to do with believing any fundamental dogmas; it had to be proven. The turning around (Isa. 3:15), was a turning back to God in obedience and trust. It was central in the message of the prophets (Isa. 10:20-21; Jer. 3:22-23; 18:8; 26:3-5; 34:15; Zech. 1:3-4; Mal. 3:7). To obey God meant to follow the Law and to do his will — to do good. Through this, God would grant remission of sins, so that final judgment and condemnation would be averted from the righteous (Isa. 55:7; Jonah 3:9-10; Ezek. 33:13-16).8 Essentially, this part of John's teaching would have been widely understood, since it derived entirely from the prophetic tradition.

The use of the verb
shubh, "turn," connects the concept of repentance with the metaphorical phrase "to walk in the way of righteousness" (Prov. 8:20). The imagery conjures up a person on a journey who has been walking along the wrong path but who, upon realizing and regretting the error, turns around and finds the right path along which to continue the journey. People who so turn around can count themselves among the righteous who will be spared destruction at the end. As Jesus is recorded as saying, "Enter by the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many. But the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those that find it are few" (Matt. 5:13-14; Luke 13:23-4).

For John, repentance was not a case of exhibiting a good attitude, or of pleading with God for forgiveness, or of expressing belief. It involved obedience to God, which demonstrated one's true, heartfelt intention. God's right path was manifested in Scripture. Torah was a fundamental expression of God's will. In Neh. 9:29 repentance is specifically described as turning towards the Law. Isa. 55:7 spells out the association between God's forgiveness and repentance:
Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil person his thoughts, and let him return to YHWH, and he will have mercy upon him. And [let him return] to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
In the Aramaic Targum Isaiah, it is written, "
let him return to the service of the Lord, that he may have mercy upon him, and to the fear of our God, for he will abundantly pardon." Here the Targum makes explicit what is implicit in the Hebrew text: returning to the Lord means doing his service. This means living righteously, in obedience to the Law, and doing good.

Prophetic literature itself provides the idea that remission of sins was not necessarily linked with making sacrifices in the Temple, for atonement was made by repentance and righteous conduct rather than the sacrifice of an animal (Lev. 5:5-10; 14:19-20; 15:15, 30). We find this notion fairly well attested as part of the prophetic tradition (Ps. 51:16-17; 1 Sam. 15:22; Prov. 15:8). The prophet Hosea, for instance, did not believe that the Temple was redundant, only that sacrifices should be seen as secondary to ethical and moral concerns. As Hosea (6:6) states:
For I desire loving-kindness, and not sacrifice; the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.

In the Community Rule from Qumran (1QS 9:4-5), a similar idea is expressed:
They shall atone for guilty rebellion and for the sins of unfaithfulness that they may obtain loving-kindness for the Land without the flesh of holocaust and the fat of sacrifice. And prayer rightly offered shall be as an acceptable fragrance of righteousness, and perfection of way as a delectable free-will offering.

And according to 1QS 8:3-4,
They shall preserve the faith in the land with steadfastness and meekness and shall atone for sin by the practice of justice and by suffering the sorrows of affliction.

The rejection of the primacy of Temple sacrifice for atonement was probably not simply a quirk of the Essenes, who considered the present Temple defiled (Josephus,
Ant. 18.19; Philo, Every Good Man Is Free 1.75). This rejection would have been known by all Jews from the prophetic tradition. Considering that the high priest was chosen by the Roman procurators and that those who administered the Temple were those who appeared to collaborate with the occupying power, the validity of the Temple sacrifices may have been questioned more widely than simply among the sectarian Essenes. For example, the group responsible for the Psalms of Solomon believed that the righteous person makes atonement for sins of ignorance by "fasting and affliction of his soul" (3:8), and that God purifies the soul when "confession and acknowledgment [of sin] is made" (9:6). These are the essential components of the initial stages of repentance. This relegation of the Temple cult to secondary importance, with the Temple nevertheless still maintaining its relevance, must also have been felt by many Jews in the Diaspora, for whom pilgrimage to the Temple was a once-in-a-lifetime event, if that.

If John stressed that "turning around" to righteousness effected atonement, then he would have been participating in a current that did not consider atonement (the remission of sins) effected only through Temple sacrifices by priests. On the other hand, sacrifice in the Temple may still have been relevant and important, for all we know, so that everything would be done in accordance with the Law. If the Gospel tradition has omitted to tell us that John asked his converts to go to the Temple and sacrifice, this is not to say that he could not have done so. Our information concerning John is extremely abbreviated. There is nothing about John's practice of immersing that should lead us to assume that it was considered to be a replacement for Temple sacrifices and procedures, even though his immersion had to do with repentance and atonement.

In other words, we do not need to see John as anti-Temple simply because he endorsed the primacy of repentance and righteousness over sacrificing in regard to atonement and forgiveness. Jesus himself in the Marcan tradition advises a healed (cleansed) leper to go to the Temple and do everything in accordance with the Law (Mark 1:40-45 = Matt. 8:1-4 = Luke 5:12-16). John too may have asked his disciples to act according to the Law in regard to the Temple. Since the Gospels were written mainly for a Gentile audience after the destruction of the Temple, it would not be surprising if references to the Temple were deleted, but we know that for the original Jesus Movement in Jerusalem the Temple remained the prime focus of piety and teaching (Acts 3:1; 5:12, 21-25, 42, etc.). So there is no reason to assume, on the basis of the link between remission of sins and repentance, that John's attitude to the Temple cult was negative. A focus on the importance of repentance does not amount to an anti-Temple stance. The prophetic tradition had both an emphasis on personal righteousness and turning towards God, Torah, and a recognition of the importance of the Temple. It was a case of emphasizing matters of the heart in relation to the God and the Temple, not of rejecting them outright.

The Confession of Sins
According to Mark (1:5; Matt. 3:5), people baptized by John had to confess their sins. This appears to have been a teaching of John's — that people should confess their sins to indicate publicly their repentance. Strictly speaking, recognition and confession of sins to God is part of the personal process of repentance. So, Rabbi Berekha, in the name of Rabbi Ba ben Bina, gave as an example of confession, "
My Lord, I have sinned and have walked in a far-off path. I will no longer do what I have done. May it be Thy will, O Lord my God, that you grant me atonement and forgive all my sins and pardon all my sins" (y. Yoma 45c). In linking baptism with confession, therefore, Mark appears to link baptism with the very moment of repentance. But while confession of sins to God is part of personal repentance, Mark does not indicate to whom the people coming to be baptized are confessing. They are simply "making full acknowledgment of" their sins in public.

Josephus states that John asked people to "come together" or "assemble" for baptism, which seems to indicate that he waited for a mass of people to gather. Luke describes Jesus' prayer as taking place "when all the people had been baptized" (Luke 3:21). Josephus indicates that Herod Antipas grew anxious when Jews had gathered together, excited by John's teaching (
Ant. 18.118); they were apparently willing to do anything he advised. John did not then immerse people in ones and twos, or even suggest they go to a mikveh by themselves. The New Testament agrees with Josephus that crowds came out to John at the Jordan, apparently for a particular event — a mass immersion. Therefore, it seems likely that the immersions that took place were public, and that part of the process involved a person indicating to God, John, and also to some of the assembled crowd that he or she was truly repentant by confessing past sins. However, neither Josephus, Luke, nor Mark was interested in giving us a precise description of what took place.

It is unlikely that John actually decided on the spot whether or not a person was worthy of immersion. His disconcerting attack on the people coming to him ("You offspring of vipers!") seems to have been designed to make them hesitate, but there is nothing to suggest that John himself sorted people out. If someone was not truly righteous, or had not borne good fruit, then the immersion would not have been truly acceptable to God, anyway; ultimately, everything rested with God, and not with John. He cannot have been a mediator. God would soon come to judge; it was not for John to do God's job. In teaching people that they had to repent and bear good fruit, and come to immersion with the requirement that they publicly acknowledge their sins to everyone there, John was probably going as far as was necessary. The public announcement of sins would have been a major obstacle for anyone who was not truly repentant. Few people would have done this lightly. There seems to have been no public announcement of anyone's good works; they were for God's viewing alone. The final decision was with God.

After undergoing instruction from John, most people who came for immersion would have had a fairly clear idea of what was required before immersion could be effective. The process of instruction would itself have sorted out those who were sincere from those who were not. People may have been expected to go away, to prove repentance, and then return indicating what they had done, before immersion.

John’s Ethical Teaching in Luke 3:10-14
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” John replied, "If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry." Even corrupt tax collectors came to be baptized and asked, "Teacher, what should we do?" He replied, "Collect no more taxes than the government requires." "What should we do?" asked some soldiers. John replied, "Don't extort money or make false accusations. And be content with your pay."

To set this teaching in context, it should be noted that it reflects a particular perspective on true righteousness. It reinforces the letter of the Law in order to prescribe a way of behaving that is consistent with the spirit of the Law and with the nature of God. That people should obey the Law is implicit. The reasons people should do so are quite simple: the ax has been "laid to the root of the trees" (Matt. 3:10 = Luke 3:9), and judgment is nigh. In view of this end time urgency, people are to repent of their sinful ways and embrace a life of righteousness in obedience to God. This was more than a prophetic announcement from John. The threat of future judgment was known to many groups. A common view appears to have been that, in order to offset the threat of future judgment, people could store up "treasure in heaven" in the form of righteous deeds.

In other words, these actions were necessary before John's immersion could be effective. Without these examples of "good fruit," no one could expect to be immersed and be cleansed, for God would not have forgiven the person's sins. If inner cleansing had not taken place, then neither would outer, bodily cleansing. The passage flows on directly from the statement concerning this good fruit: "you must bear fruits worthy of repentance . . . and every tree not producing good fruit will be cut down and thrown into a fire . . . and the crowds asked him, saying, 'What then should we do [in order to be immersed/bear good fruit]?'"

There are two parts to John's specific teaching as recorded by Luke. The first part (3:10-11) is a general prescription for instruction the crowds who came to him for immersion, accepted him as a prophet-teacher, and sought both his immersion and advice on how to make it effective. The second part concerns the problems encountered by people who wished to repent and follow the Law in professions that society tended to consider reprehensible.

John's Prediction
Now, we will consider the substance of his predictions as forming part of his body of teaching. This material, which concerns a coming figure and impending judgment, is universally accepted by scholars as being authentic. John preached the nearness of the end and the importance of deciding now to walk along the right path. Someone coming soon would separate the righteous from the wicked like wheat from chaff. There were no ambiguities; you were either one thing or the other, so Matt. 3:12 (Luke 3:16-17), which states:
I immerse you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I am — he whose sandals I am not worthy to carry — this one will immerse you in holy spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with an unquenchable fire.

or, as Mark 1:7 has it:
The one mightier than I comes after me — I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. I immerse you with [or: in] water, but he will immerse you in holy spirit.

Related to this prediction is a metaphor that describes the people of Israel as trees in an orchard. Trees that do not bear good fruit are about to be cut down and thrown on to the fire; only the trees that do bear good fruit will remain standing.
You vipers' offspring! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath [of God]? [If you wish to be immersed] then you must bear fruits worthy of repentance. . . . For even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees; then every tree not producing good fruit will be cut down and thrown into a fire. (Luke 3:7-8, 9 = Matt. 3:7-8, 10)

John's reputation as a preacher of apocalyptic doom rests on these passages. John Kloppenborg dubs the sermon "bitter and reproachful." At the same time, these words are considered by scholars to be the most likely authentic sayings of John the Baptist. Indeed, that the coming one would put unrighteous people into a great bath of fire, like trees thrown onto a raging pyre, seems to have been a central image of his predictions. But John did not, it seems, see himself as a grim figure. Far from it. The one coming after him would comport himself in stark contrast to John, who gently immersed people in water for their repentance. By John's own statement, then, he was the mild one; it was the one coming after him who would be ruthless and accept no further repentance.

By calling people who came to him for immersion "vipers' offspring," John indicated that they were scared, wanting to slither away from their own punishment, as a snake slithers away into a corner or under a rock to avoid being bashed by a stick. John's language in modern colloquial usage might be rendered "You bunch of chickens!" Yet there may be another nuance; the offspring of a venomous snake might recall Gen. 3:15, where God says to the snake of Eden: "
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers. Her offspring will bash your head, and you [i.e., through your offspring] will strike at his heel." Those who come to immersion without proof of repentance are therefore not only scared, but potentially the offspring of the first tempter. Only if repentance was proven by "good fruit" could their repentance, and subsequent immersion, be acceptable to God. But scaring people into repentance was not what John seems to have aimed for. He was full of disdain for unrighteous people who seemed to cower before the possibility of judgment.

According to both Matthew and Luke, John predicted that the righteous would be immersed in holy spirit and the wicked in fire (Matt. 3:11; Luke 3:16). It is possible that the reference to the holy spirit was found by Matthew and Luke in Mark 1:8 and joined with a saying in Q that referred only to the wicked being immersed in fire. Elsewhere in Q, addressing only the unrighteous, John warns that they will be burned unless they repent and do good works (Matt. 3:10 = Luke 3:9). Caution is in order here, though, because John's supposed prediction of an immersion in holy spirit may have been inserted into material about John, to make him predict later Christian baptism in the holy spirit.

Consideration of the imagery may lead one to question whether mention of "holy spirit" goes back to John himself. John's baptism appears to have involved a full-body immersion, and the imagery of the "immersion of fire" ties in with his practice. One imagines someone entirely immersed in a lake of fire. However, the so-called "baptism in the holy spirit" was not an immersion in the same way. People were not imagined as going into a large body of aqueous spirit. In the Scriptures, the (or: a) holy spirit is sprinkled over people's heads, just as water maybe sprinkled or poured out for some kinds of purification (see, Joel 3:1-5; Ezek. 36:25-27; 39:29; Zech. 12:10; 1QS 4:21). In Ezek. 36:27 the spirit is poured into people's hearts so that they will be able to follow God's Law instinctively in the glorious period following the vindication of the righteous after judgment (and the destruction of sinners; cf. 1QS 3:6-8). In 1QS 4:20-21 God is expected to purge all the remaining falsehood and wickedness from those who are to live at the end. The inner cleansing process is effected by sprinkling of a holy spirit of truth:
And he [God] will cleanse him of all evil actions by a spirit of
holiness and he will sprinkle upon him a spirit of truth like waters for
impurity from all the abominations of falsehood. And he will be saturated in the spirit for impurity
in order to instruct the upright in the knowledge of the Most High. . . .

But here we may pause, for in the
Community Rule we do get a sense that the "sprinkling" involves a very thorough drenching in spirit. It is not a mild splash. In Isa. 32:15 (44:3), the spirit is poured out and "the desert becomes a fertile field." It is like torrential rain that drenches a person through and through. Given this imagery, perhaps a saturation or immersion of this type was envisaged by John. It is certainly possible that John predicted not an immersion in an aqueous body of holy spirit, but a thorough drenching and saturation in it. In the Mishnah tractate Miqwa'ot, water of rain drippings that have not stopped is clean (1:6), though nothing is said about anyone immersing in downpours. To what extent complete saturation in rainwater might be called an "immersion" can remain a moot point, but this seems to be what the imagery used by John indicates. Like rainwater also, a downpour of holy spirit comes from the heavens. So there is no compelling reason against accepting that John did indeed predict an immersion either in fire (as a river or lake) or in holy spirit (as a torrential downpour from heaven).

That there was some promise of reward for the righteous in John's teaching seems quite likely; far from a baptism of fire being the consistent feature of John's predictions, reference to fire is lacking at Mark 1:8 and Acts 1:5 and 11:16. In fact, in Acts 11:16 we have a preserved saying of the Jesus tradition: "John immersed with water, but you will be immersed in holy spirit." Saturation in holy spirit seems to have been part of a larger complex of widely varying apocalyptic expectations. The righteous could expect a wonderful long life in a Gentile-free land, focusing on a cleansed and renewed Temple (
Ps. Sol. 17:25, 33). The resurrected righteous dead would join the living to dwell there. God would rule his kingdom on earth. All war and ill-health would cease. Righteousness, love, and faithfulness would prevail. Women would bear children without pain. Perhaps John predicted such things. Whatever the case, there is a positive side to John's message in Q: the righteous would be safely gathered like wheat into a barn (Matt. 3:12; Luke 3:17). People could make of that what they liked, but it implies that John promised a definite reward to those who repented.

Furthermore, to argue that Christians invented John's reference to an immersion in holy spirit entails a serious problem. If John accepted the teaching of Ezekiel — that the righteous would find God's spirit coming into them after judgment — Christians could not have made his teaching refer to Christian baptism in the Spirit. If Christians had done so, John's prophecy would have been blatantly anachronistic, for immersion in fire and spirit follows judgment, whereas Christian baptism in the Holy Spirit precedes it. It seems unlikely, then, that Christians put the prediction of immersion in spirit onto John's lips, for had they invented it outright one would expect some qualification to indicate that the immersion in spirit would precede the punishment of the wicked in fire. In short, Q must have contained both elements: immersion in holy spirit and in fire.

It is clear that John predicted that a figure would come after him who was by far his superior. As we have seen, this prediction is found in both the Marcan and Q traditions (Mark 1:7-8; Matt. 3:11-12; Luke 3:16-17) and also in Acts (1:5; 11:16; 13:23-25; 19:4) and John 1:26-27, 33. In Q, the coming figure is one who executes judgment. It has been suggested that John predicted the coming of God himself. God would clean the threshing floor (Matt. 3:12 = Luke 3:17) after the winnowing that separates the wheat from the chaff has taken place. However, as Webb notes, the reference is not quite so simple, for other passages referring to the "coming one" strongly imply that this figure is a person, who may be understood as an agent of God. After all, if John asked Jesus whether he was "the coming one," (Matt. 11:2-6 =Luke 7:18-23), then John must have expected a human being.

As we have seen, John wished people to repent and live righteously. End times predictions had ramifications for present behavior. The "chaff" (of Matt. 3:11-12 = Luke 3:16-17) are those who do not keep the Torah and live unrighteously, rather like the "goats" of the Jesus tradition's analogy in Matt. 25:31-46. The comments recorded by Matthew and attributed to Jesus concern how the righteous are expected to behave: they are to clothe the naked and feed the hungry. These expectations reflect perfectly the directives that John gave his disciples. As we have seen, John probably told people who asked him how to bear good fruit that they should give a second tunic to the one who had none and share food (Luke 3:10-11). The further characteristics of the "sheep," the righteous, that are given by Jesus are perfectly in keeping with these instructions: to give drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, to visit the sick and those in prison. As we saw, this definition of supererogatory righteousness, constituting acts of
zekhut, ultimately derives from the prophetic tradition (Isa. 58:7, 10; Ezek. 18:7; Job 31:32), which itself built upon the Mosaic Law. Never were these moral principles expressing loving-kindness to one's fellow human beings thought to supersede all the rest of the Law, which might then be dispensed with, as Ezek. 18:5-9 makes clear:
If someone is righteous, and does justice and righteousness.,. if one does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, does not commit robbery, gives his bread to the hungry, and covers the naked with clothing ... if he walks in my statutes and observes my ordinances, acting faithfully, then he is righteous and will surely live, says the Lord YHWH.

A person who is truly obedient to God and his Law will do these things as part of his or her righteous life. Morality and the Law are intertwined, for God is a moral God who wants his people to live justly. The end time too is intertwined with the maintenance of God's Law, for end times expectation of the coming of God to separate out the good and bad and administer reward or punishment was an incentive to present behavior. This is expressed by the prophet Malachi, who announced that a "messenger of the covenant," Elijah (Mai. 3:1; 4:5), would "prepare the way" before God. God would then come to his Temple and bear witness against the wicked — the sorcerers, the adulterers, those who swear falsely, people who oppress workers, widows, and orphans and who thrust aside the alien (3:5). In other words, God says that he will condemn those who "
have turned away from my statutes and have hot kept them." The solution is simple: "Turn to me [repent], and I will turn to you" (3:7). The wicked will be burned up like dead wood, and the righteous will leap like calves over their ashes (4:1-3). In the meantime, they should "remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and the ordinances for all Israel that I commanded him at Horeb" (4:4). John's message was very similar in theme and language.

In John's scenario, awareness of the nearness of judgment should influence present behavior. The congregation of God, which lives righteously, may itself bring near the kingdom. In rabbinic literature, accepting God's sovereignty and living virtuously in accordance with God's will is considered to be acceptance of "
the yoke of the kingdom of heaven". The yoke of the kingdom of heaven is "the yoke of Torah" (m. 'Abot 3:5). As the Mishnah has it, "A man should take upon himself first the yoke of the kingdom of heaven and therefore the yoke of the commandments" (m. Ber. 2:2). God's kingship implies that all will walk on the way of God, which, as we have seen, is the way of Torah — the way of righteousness. John's message seems to have been generally in keeping with this kind of concept. Living righteously — walking along the way of God — brings near the universal eschatological reality of the kingdom of heaven, for the kingdom of heaven means essentially that the rule of God exists among a congregation of people on earth. It was then partly realized, and growing, and yet also in the near future in fullness. The Matthean tradition of Jesus' teaching also connects the coming of the kingdom with righteousness: "but seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these shall be yours as well" (Matt. 6:33).

All this is worth stressing, because although it is usually recognized that John predicted the coming end and God's judgment, this prediction is often detached from its proper connection with an exhortation to keep God's Law in the present. For example, C. H. H. Scobie notes, in considering whether John might have had anything in common with the Pharisees as opposed to the Sadducees, "
John may have felt more sympathy with the Pharisees, with whose general outlook and whose end times teachings he had much in common. Yet their legalistic temper and concern with the tradition which was built up around the Law is foreign to John's radical prophetic outlook." But, the two do not exist in opposition within Judaism; the wholehearted keeping of the Law was central to the message of the prophets. Biblical prophecy was never concerned with instituting a faith-centered religion that would marginalize the Law; rather, it was concerned with calling people to complete moral, ethical, cultic, and spiritual obedience to God, as enshrined in the Scriptures — especially the Law.

It is unlikely that John considered that only those he immersed would be saved from punishment. Absolutely nothing about John's message requires us to assume that he intended to immerse people to form an exclusive group that might deem themselves to be God's faithful remnant in the last days. The Targum of Isaiah's definition of the righteous as those who do not sin as well as those who have repented from sin (7:3; 10:21-22; 33:13; 57:19) illustrates the commonly accepted notion that those who repented, even if rather late, would be included with the righteous on the same terms when it came to final judgment. The wicked person who repents would also be called "my servant," as the Targum has it (42:19). If John shared this view, which seems very likely, then the repentant sinner he immersed would have been included with the already righteous as God's servants. The figure of Jesus in the Gospels specifically comments that he has not come to call the righteous, but the wicked to repentance (Mark 2:16-17; Matt. 18:12-14; Luke 15:1-32), and we may presume that John felt much the same way. There is simply no point in calling the righteous to repentance; it is illogical. John is described as calling the disobedient to repent and follow the Law, but at no stage did he consider that only those who came to him would be counted as God's servants; nor is there a suggestion that the righteous should also come to him for immersion to ensure their own salvation, as if immersion was some kind of quasi-magical sealing rite.

There is nothing sectarian or exclusive here. Some of those who came to him as repentant sinners and who were immersed by him, along with those who were accounted righteous already, looked to him as their particular teacher. There were many teachers in Judaism, and their disciples did not immediately form themselves into a sect as such. They were just disciples of a certain teacher. John's disciples seem not to have constituted an exclusive sect claiming that it alone could expect salvation while all others would be consumed by fire. They probably embraced the careful following of the Law — the way of righteousness — in expectation of an imminent judgment, and they looked forward to the purging of Israel of all things wicked. If they distinguished themselves at all it would have been by the supererogatory acts of loving-kindness that John demanded: to live only with the barest minimum of possessions and to give away the rest to those in great need — in short, to live as ethically as possible. In this way, what was initially required as good fruit to prove that repentance had taken place would have been maintained in order to live a life of ongoing acceptance by God that would, in due course, ensure salvation at the end. However, it would have been uncharacteristically arrogant of John to suggest that no one in the whole of Israel apart from those who came to him was already righteous.

Essay excerpted from:
Taylor, Joan E.
The Immerser: John the Baptist. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1997.
Martin, Raymond A. Studies in the Life and Ministry of the Historical Jesus. University Press of America, 1995
Meier, John P.
A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Doubleday, 1994
-All rights reserved to the respective authors

Excerpted & Aggregated from S. McKnight & J. Meier

Now we come to the tradition about the Baptist's execution by Herod Antipas, recounted in Mark 6:17-29 and repeated in an abbreviated form by Matthew in 14:3-12. We shall not spend much time on the Marcan story, for two reasons: (1) Even if it is basically historical, it has little or nothing to do with the historical Jesus. (2) The strongly legendary tone of the Marcan story as well as its differences with Josephus' account incline us to the view that the Marcan account contains little of historical worth, even with reference to the historical John.

The first reason is self-evident to anyone who reads Mark's narrative. Jesus is never mentioned in the account of the events leading up to John's execution (6:17-29). Indeed, the story in Mark 6:17-29 is much more a story about Herod Antipas and his family than it is about the Baptist. In fact, exegetes are hard pressed to find a reason why this story was inserted by Mark into his Gospel. A few tenuous connections of a literary or theological nature can be suggested. To begin with, the story of John's death provides an interlude while Jesus' twelve disciples go out on mission and then return to Jesus (6:6-13 + 30-31). More importantly, the theme of the rejection and execution of the prophet-martyr John ties in with the rejection of Jesus the prophet at Nazareth (6:1-6) and ultimately with Jesus' own martyrdom in Jerusalem. Various Greek words and phrases in Mark 6:17-29, along with certain governing ideas, are probably intended by the Evangelist to point forward to the Passion Narrative. But that vague nexus is the best explanation one can offer for the presence in Mark of a relatively lengthy story that has nothing directly to do with Jesus. Thus, even if every word of 6:17-29 reflected historical events exactly, it would add nothing to our knowledge of the historical Jesus.

There are, however, indications that not every word in Mark's narrative can be taken as historically accurate. Not to deny that the story has a historical core, since the core is confirmed by Mark's basic agreement with the very different description of John's death by Josephus. The core, though, is small: John was arrested and then executed by Antipas. In addition, Antipas' rejection of his first wife and his marriage to Herodias, who was previously married to one of Antipas' half-brothers, act as background or motivation for the execution in both accounts, though in very different ways. Beyond this meager core, the two presentations by Mark and Josephus are quite dissimilar, although they do not formally contradict each other on each and every count.

In considering the elements that are probably not historical in Mark's story, pride of place must be given to his inaccurate statement that Antipas' second wife, Herodias, had previously been the wife of Antipas' half-brother Philip. This is simply incorrect, as we know from Josephus'
Jewish Antiquities (18.5.4 §136). In fact, Herodias, the sister of Herod Agrippa I and the granddaughter of Herod the Great, first married a half-brother of Antipas known simply as Herod (a son of Herod the Great by his wife Mariamme II; Antipas was Herod the Great's son by the Samaritan woman Malthace). Herod (i.e., Antipas' half-brother) and Herodias had a daughter named Salome; it was this Salome who married another half-brother of Antipas named Philip (a son of Herod the Great by his wife Cleopatra of Jerusalem). To try to save Mark from a glaring historical error, Christian commentators have traditionally created a "Herod Philip" (salvation by conflation), but such a Herodian poltergeist never existed outside the minds of Christian Eisegesis.

Similarly, to maintain that Josephus is somehow wrong or confused would be a gratuitous assumption made to rescue Mark's accuracy at any cost. Josephus shows a much greater knowledge of Herodian genealogy than does Mark. When one looks at the bewildering chart of the descendants of Herod the Great and his ten wives, one can sympathize with Mark's confusion; but sympathy should never lead to a coverup. Indeed, Mark may have made more than one genealogical mistake in this story. There is a good chance that the text of Mark 6:22 should read: "And when his [Antipas'] daughter Herodias had come in and danced...." If that is the correct reading, then Mark is operating under the erroneous impression that Antipas and his wife Herodias had a daughter named Herodias. Be that as it may, the main point is clear simply from his mistake about "Philip": if Mark can be so wrong about the basic familial relationships that are the driving engine of the plot of his story about John's execution, why should we credit the rest of his story as historical?

Other aspects of Mark's story do not reassure one. Josephus gives us the precise place of John's execution: the fortress Machaerus to the east of the Dead Sea. While Mark does not specify the place of the great birthday party for Antipas that serves as the setting for John's execution, the natural inference from the Galilean setting of almost the whole of Jesus' public ministry is that the fateful scene is set in Galilee, perhaps at Antipas' new palace in Tiberias. This general impression is reinforced by a concrete detail as Mark paints the scene: the guests of Antipas include "his courtiers, military officers, and the leading men of Galilee." Notice: the leading men of Galilee, not of Perea, the other part of Antipas' tetrarchy, where Machaerus was located. Hence it seems probable that Mark intends to place the imprisonment and execution of John in Galilee (therefore geographically as well as theologically close to Jesus). There is no reason to think that Josephus, who is well-informed about Machaerus, is mistaken in his information; and so once again Mark is wrong in his presentation.

It will not do to attempt an escape-hatch solution, such as the suggestion that the party took place in Galilee, whence Antipas issued the order that the Baptist be executed in the fortress at Machaerus. Mark's own narrative demands that the Baptist be imprisoned where the party is taking place: after the dancing daughter makes her request for John's head, she waits until the executioner carries out Antipas' command. Then, having received the head from the executioner, the daughter gives it to her mother (6:27-28). If instead we seek to salvage something in Mark's narrative by massively rewriting or amending it, the question arises: why should we bother trying to salvage it at all? The simpler solution is to distinguish between the reliability of the Synoptics in recounting John's eschatological ministry, message, and baptism on the one hand and their reliability in narrating his death on the other. In the former case they are superior to Josephus, in the latter not so. For the historian, it is merely a matter of letting the chips fall where they may instead of playing favorites.

These observations are supported by a literary analysis of Mark's story. As all admit, the narrative resonates with echoes of various OT traditions: the prophet Elijah's struggle with King Ahab and his evil wife Jezebel (1 Kgs 19:1-2; 21:17-26), the persecuted and martyred prophets in general, and the folkloric motifs in the Book of Esther. These folkloric motifs find parallels in Greco-Roman stories of love, revenge, rash oaths, and women asking for what kings would rather not give, all in the context of royal banquets. We seem to be dealing with folklore tinged with strong anti-Herodian feeling (perhaps aimed especially at the "liberated" female members of the Herodian dynasty), folklore that was then reformulated (by Baptist sectarians or Christians?) as a legend of the martyr's death, and then redacted by Mark to make John a forerunner of Jesus in death as well as in life. With such a complicated tradition history, it is no wonder that exegetes debate the exact category to which Mark 6:17—29 belongs. A report of martyrdom, a legend, and an anecdote have all been suggested. After considering these various suggestions, Gerd Theissen opts for "court anecdote" or "court legend" as the best label.

One question that remains is whether the reason for the Baptist's imprisonment and death did in fact have anything to do with his rebuking Antipas about his irregular marriage to Herodias. In Josephus' account, there is no such rebuke. Herodias is involved in the overall story in a different way, one that does not connect her direcctly with John. Antipas, having fallen in love with Herodias, plans to divorce his first wife, the daughter of the Nabatean King Aretas IV. When his first wife gets wind of the plans, she finds an excuse to go to Machaerus, which is situated close to the border between Antipas' and Aretas' territories. She then flees to her father. This is only the beginning of a quarrel that is further aggravated by a dispute between Antipas and Aretas over territorial boundaries. In the end, a battle is fought in which Antipas' whole army is destroyed. It is at this point that Josephus pauses to give us the "flashback" about the ministry and death of the Baptist, since some Jews saw the destruction of Herod's army as punishment from God for the execution of John. Thus, in Josephus, the connection between Antipas' marriage to Herodias and his execution of the Baptist exists only indirectly and only in the minds of certain devout Jews who see retribution from God in a particular human event. There is no chain of causality on the merely human, empirical level. Not so in Mark, where John rebukes Antipas for his second marriage: "It is not licit for you to have your brother's wife [as your wife]." This angers Herodias more than Antipas, and it is her animus that leads to John's death.

As Josef Ernst, Gerd Theissen, and other scholars point out, there is no strict contradiction between Mark and Josephus on the reason for John's imprisonment and execution. Mark emphasizes John's ethical rebuke aimed at Antipas' second marriage, while Josephus focuses on Antipas' political fears that John's influence on the Jewish masses could lead to an uprising. Historically, there could have been a fatal interaction between John's moral concerns and Antipas' political suspicions. If Antipas was experiencing a threat to his borders by Aretas because of his desire to marry Herodias, and if in addition the religious sensibilities of ordinary Jews in Antipas' realm were offended by a "liberated" Hellenistically educated Herodian princess taking the initiative in divorcing her first husband to marry his half-brother, the purely moral concerns of the Baptist (who at times operated near the Nabatean border) would inevitably and inextricably become entwined with realpolitik considerations of the tetrarch. Faced with the possibility of war on the border and unrest at home, all because of his irregular marital situation, Antipas would naturally read the ethical rebuke of John the ascetic prophet as a challenge to the legitimacy of his rule. He accordingly took preemptive action to cut off the internal critique by cutting off John's head.

This harmonization of the accounts of Mark and Josephus is certainly possible, but one must remain skeptical. As we have seen, the story in Mark 6:17—29 is erroneous in key historical matters (i.e., the marital problem that set off the conflict with John, the place of John's imprisonment and execution, and perhaps the identity of the daughter) and is suffused with legendary and folkloric traits. Moreover, the links between the accounts of Mark and Josephus exist largely in the mind of the modern Christian eisegete. Mark knows nothing of political considerations leading to John's death; Josephus—although he, unlike Mark, presents John as a preacher of morality—knows nothing of a moral rebuke to Antipas. The absence of the motif of ethical rebuke in Josephus' account is all the stranger since Josephus seems to have had the apologetic intent of stressing John's purely moral and religious mission, to protect him from any charge of having revolutionary intentions. Furthermore, in Josephus the initiative to arrest and execute John comes from Antipas alone, while Herodias is the driving force in Mark's story.

All in all, attempts at harmonization, while not impossible, are probably ill-advised. When it comes to the imprisonment and death of John, Josephus, not Mark, must serve as our main source. Receiving a folkloric legend already remodeled as a pious account of a martyr's unjust execution, Mark used the story for his own purposes. The tradition he inherited preserved the most basic facts: sometime after Jesus' baptism, John was imprisoned and executed by Antipas. Mark's story also had a vague recollection that Antipas' irregular marriage to Herodias was somehow connected with the Baptist's death, but lively imagination and OT allusions had long since developed the nexus in a different direction from what we read in the Antiquities. Coming as it does from a diverse matrix and being developed in a very disparate fashion, Mark's account supplies valuable independent confirmation of the most basic points of Josephus' report. Beyond those, Josephus is to be preferred for history; Mark is to be mined for tradition history and theological intent.

In any case, what is important for our study of the historical and authentic Jesus remains firm no matter how we judge the exact relation between the accounts of Mark and Josephus on John's death. The ascetic Jewish prophet who was the determinative influence setting Jesus on the course of his public ministry, the end times prophet whose announcement of the imminent end of Israel's history Jesus had accepted, the charismatic prophet who administered a once-and-for-all baptism that Jesus had received at his hands, the preacher of repentance whose call Jesus recycled and extended to all Israel, this Jewish prophet called John met a violent death at the hands of the Jewish ruler of Galilee some time before 34 A.D., in the very land where Jesus the prophet was plying a good deal of his end times ministry. Seen simply in itself, this grim execution of a holy man whom many revered after his death as a martyr could not help but turn the mind of Jesus the prophet to the dangers involved in continuing John's recycled and reinterpreted ministry.

Moreover, in 1st-century Palestine John's violent death did not occur in a theological vacuum. The people of Israel had known a long line of prophets sent by God to his sinful people, prophets who were often rejected and sometimes martyred. The Books of Samuel and Kings, especially as redacted by the so-called "deuteronomistic historian," as well as 1-2 Chronicles, inculcated this pattern, and the lives of prophets like Jeremiah made it much more than a literary pattern. The tradition of and the veneration for martyred prophets grew swiftly in some Israelite circles in the 1st centuries B.C. and A.D. In due time, the dignity of martyrdom was extended to other prophets (e.g., Isaiah), and the adornment and veneration of the tombs of the martyred-prophets became popular. Granted this wider religious context, the martyrdom of the end times prophet John necessarily possessed deep resonance for the end times prophet "Son of God" Jesus. If we look at the question of how Jesus might have faced the possibility of a violent death, we will have to remember that the possibility had become a very real one for the Nazarene, thanks to the fate of his former teacher. When and if Jesus pondered the prophetic literature on the persecution and death of God's messengers, he needed no special biblical interpretive aid to apply it. John had become its midrash incarnate.

Essay excerpted from:
Taylor, Joan E.
The Immerser: John the Baptist. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1997.
Martin, Raymond A.
Studies in the Life and Ministry of the Historical Jesus. University Press of America, 1995
Meier, John P.
A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Doubleday, 1994
-All rights reserved to the respective authors

Excerpted & Aggregated from S. McKnight & J. Meier

All these sections on John the Baptist, and the survey of all of Jesus' sayings and actions that connect him with the religious matrix of John the Baptist, leads us far and wide over all Four Gospels and Acts. That in itself is significant. Even after the Baptist's arrest and execution, Jesus was never entirely "without John." He carried John's end-times teachings, concern for a sinful Israel facing God's imminent judgment, call to repentance, and baptism with him throughout his own ministry. It is also significant that Jesus' sayings about John the Baptist come to us in material that speaks of a wide range of topics: the kingdom of God proclaimed to the poor, Jesus' miracles, his non-ascetic lifestyle, his table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, his more "realized" end times teachings, his relation to the law and the prophets, disciples in the kingdom, his teaching in parables and beatitudes, his standing in parallel position to John the prophet, his rejection by people in general, his confrontation with Jerusalem authorities in the temple, and opposition from rulers that could lead to martyrdom.

In conclusion, Jesus' statements concerning John obviously suggest that he linked himself with John. Both of them were revivalist prophets in a sense, preaching the kingdom of God and enabling people to enter into this kingdom. In placing John at the very beginning of the gospel, the early Christians retained this link between John and Jesus, but they wished to subordinate John to the role of precursor to the Messiah. Jesus himself, though, seems to have had the utmost respect for John: John's immersion was authorized by God (Mk 11:30); he came in the way of righteousness (Mat 21:32); he was "more than a prophet" (Mat 11:9; Lk 7:26); no one was greater than he (Mat 11:11; Lk 7:18); he was in fact inscripturated as Elijah, who had to suffer according to the Scriptures (Mrk 9:11-13). In other words, Jesus may have asserted of John precisely what John denied — that he, John, was playing out a divine role as Elijah. Certainly, John's denial seems to be evidence that there were people around him who believed he was Elijah. His death at the hands of Herod Antipas may have knocked this notion considerably. But Jesus asserted that his — John's — suffering and death were alluded to in the Scriptures.

When one stops to look back on all the themes we have covered, we realize that almost every topic that remains to be treated in this work on the authentic and historical Jesus is somehow touched on in Jesus' sayings about John the Baptist. This stands to reason since, having emerged from John's circle with some of John's disciples, Jesus would find it necessary to explain to interested Israelites and potential enemies alike how he continued with, yet differed from, the Baptist's teachings and practices. Hence almost every major aspect of the historical Jesus' ministry—especially those matters in which he differed from John—finds some echo in the sayings on the Baptist. One can now appreciate that it was not merely concern for chronological nicety that placed John first in our treatment of Jesus' ministry. By treating the John-material in detail, we have already been brought into the center of Jesus' own concerns.

Among the many themes that have surfaced in Jesus' sayings about the Baptist, the key phrase "the kingdom of God" appears three times (Mat 11:11; 11:12; Mat 21:31), more than any other important theological image specific to Jesus' preaching. This correlates perfectly with the position of many exegetes that the kingdom of God was the central and governing image in Jesus' proclamation. It is therefore to the kingdom of God that we now turn to begin our study of the proclamation and practices of the historical Jesus.

Based on what John was, and what Jesus later professed, Jesus came to John at the Jordan River as a repentant sinner. Jesus undertook to hear John's teaching and resolved to walk in the way of righteousness, returning to Torah, as John defined it, in complete obedience to God. He learned John's teaching (and would later use it in his own body of teaching). At the moment of Jesus' immersion, as he came up out of the water, he experienced something unexpected — a vision of the Holy Spirit descending upon him and the apprehension that he was counted as a beloved son of God, in whom God was well pleased. This indicated to him that he was to be God's viceroy, and he recounted this experience to his own disciples in order to indicate the beginning of his prophetic mission. He seems to have copied John by going out to the wilderness in order to exist there on what he could find provided naturally by God. When he heard of John's imprisonment by Antipas, however, he went to his own home area, Galilee, and undertook to continue John's teaching and immersion, but as a prophet in his own right set apart as the Son of God. He called people back from unrighteousness, defining like John a very high standard of perfection, and he extolled John as having the biblical role of Elijah — "more than a prophet." He hailed John's immersion of repentance as a practice authorized by God. He proclaimed that the kingdom of God was breaking through. These were the last days, and the end was nigh; it was necessary for those not counted among the righteous to repent. In addition, he did something that John did not; he demonstrated that he was in possession of the prophetic spirit and that the end was here by rewarding the faithful with healings, exorcisms, and works of wonder. In Galilee, some believed Jesus and John, but many did not. Jesus denounced those who came to see John but who did not repent when they needed to — those who dismissed John as being possessed by a demon. These same people did not believe him, Jesus suggested. Their fate would be grim. Like John, Jesus could anticipate a happy future for the repentant and righteous but a miserable fate for those who rejected the will of God for themselves.

Essay excerpted from:
Taylor, Joan E.
The Immerser: John the Baptist. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1997.
Martin, Raymond A.
Studies in the Life and Ministry of the Historical Jesus. University Press of America, 1995
Meier, John P.
A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. Doubleday, 1994
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