John the Baptist

Messiah (mâšîah, "the anointed one"): Jewish religious concept, a future savior who will, in some sense, come to restore Israel. The nature of both the Messiah and the restoration was a matter of debate, and there were several claimants.

John the Baptist (c.28 CE)

Sources: Mark 1.2-9, 6.14-29; Luke 1.5-25, 39-80; Q's "first Baptist block" = Matthew 3.7-12 || Luke 3.7-9, 15-18; Q's "second Baptist block" = Luke 7.18-35 || Matthew 11.2-19; Luke's own tradition, 3.10-14; John 1.19-42; Acts 19.1-7; Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18.116-119.

According to the Gospel of Luke, John was born in the time of king Herod the Great as the son of a priest named Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, pious people who were well on in years and had no children. Luke continues the lovely story about the birth of John as follows.

And it came to pass that while Zechariah executed the priest's office before God in the order of his course, according to the custom of the priest's office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the time of incense. And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zechariah saw him he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said unto him, "Fear not, Zechariah, for thy prayer is heard, and thy wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness, and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink, and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."
And Zechariah said unto the angel, "Whereby shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years."
And the angel answering, said unto him, "I am Gabriel who stands in the presence of God, and am sent to speak unto thee and to show thee these glad tidings. And behold, thou shalt be dumb and not able to speak until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words which shall be fulfilled in their season."
And the people waited for Zechariah, and marveled that he tarried so long in the temple. And when he came out, he could not speak unto them, and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple; for he beckoned unto them and remained speechless. And it came to pass that as soon as the days of his ministration were accomplished, he departed to his own house. And after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, "Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein He looked on me, to take away my reproach among men."note

The "reproach among men" is a reference to the fact that Elizabeth was barren. In Antiquity, this was considered to be disgraceful: it implied that the woman was punished for a sin.

Luke tells us that her relative Mary, who was to become the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, visited Elizabeth and spent three months with her. Half a century later, the children of the two ladies were still bracketed together (Acts 19.1-7) and it is tempting to speculate whether the two were indeed related - as Luke would have it - or that their family ties was later invented. We simply do not know the answer. According to Luke, Mary spent three months with Elizabeth and returned home. By now, Mary was in the fourth month of her pregnancy, and according to ancient medical knowledge, she had to prepare herself for the delivery of her own baby. Shortly after Mary's departure, Elizabeth gave birth to a son.

And her neighbors and her kindred heard how the Lord had shown great mercy upon her, and they rejoiced with her.
And it came to pass that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they called him Zechariah, after the name of his father. But his mother answered and said, "Not so, but he shall be called John."
And they said unto her, "There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name."
And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called. And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, saying, "His name is John." And they marveled all.
And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spoke and praised God. And fear came on all who dwelt round about them; and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judea. And all those who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, "What manner of child shall this be?"note

This charming story may go back to a historical event, but one must remain skeptical. After all, we have two infancy narratives about Jesus of Nazareth (to be found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke), and when they are studied carefully, we must admit that we cannot establish what really happened. When we have only one source, as is the case with John, we should be even more skeptical.

On the other hand, it is remarkable that - still according to Luke - the only son of a priest turned his back on continuing his father's priestly line, something that was his duty. Instead, he choose to become a prophet with distinctly anti-establishment opinions. This is too odd to be Luke's fantasy and may well be the historical truth.

The oldest description of John's ministry can be found in the gospel of Mark. The prophetic announcement is a combination of Maleachi 3.1 and Isaiah 40.3.

As it is written in the prophets: Behold, I send My messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight."
John baptized in the wilderness and preached the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea and those of Jerusalem; and they were all baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
John was clothed with dromedary's hair and with a girdle of a skin about his loins, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, "There cometh after me one mightier than I, the strap of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water, but He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
And it came to pass in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan.note

This incident can be dated, because Luke writes that Jesus came to visit John "in the fifteenth year of the reign of the emperor Tiberius". This corresponds to 28/29. According to Mark, John baptized Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus of Nazareth was baptized by John in the Jordan. And straightway coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him. And there came a voice from heaven, saying, "Thou art my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased."note

Obviously, this statement caused embarrassment among later Christian authors, who were unable to accept that their Messiah had accepted a "baptism of repentance for the remission of sins". In the gospel of John, the baptism is replaced by a declaration that Jesus was to take away the sins of mankind. Matthew felt himself compelled to change the story, adding a significant exchange between John and Jesus.

But John forbad him, saying, "I have need to be baptized by thee, and comest thou to me?"
And Jesus answering said unto him, "Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness."note

John's teachings are known from a source commonly called Q, which is by definition the text that the gospels of Matthew and Luke have in common and do not share with Mark. Q has two "Baptist blocks", and the following words are the first of these.

Then John said to the multitude who came forth to be baptized by him, "O generation of vipers! Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say among yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father." For I say unto you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the ax is laid unto the root of the trees. Every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire."
And the people asked him, saying, "What shall we do then?"
He answered and said unto them, "He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none. And he that hath meat, let him do likewise."
Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, "Master, what shall we do?"
And he said unto them, "Exact no more than that which is appointed you."
And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, "And what shall we do?" And he said unto them, "Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages."
And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts whether John was the Messiah or not, John answered, saying unto them all, "I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the straps of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose. He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly purge His floor and will gather the wheat into His garner; but the chaff He will burn with fire unquenchable."
And with many other exhortations preached he unto the people. But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison.note

The incident referred to in the last lines is the following. Herod Antipas, the Jewish leader of Galilee and Perea, had fallen in love with the wife of his half-brother, who was also called Herod (not Philip). Antipas' rejected first wife, Phasaelis, was the daughter of Aretas, the king of the Nabataean city Petra; her rejection was one of the reasons why Antipas and Aretas went to war (more).

The quotation above makes it clear that John did not consider himself to be the Messiah, and it is possible that he was not even interested in messianology. He simply speaks about someone mightier than himself, which may refer to God, Who was to judge mankind, punish the wicked and reward those who had repented. If anything, John was an eschatological teacher.

More or less the same story, including the denial to be the Messiah, is told in the gospel of John.

When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who art thou?", he confessed, "I am not the Christ."
And they asked him, "What then? Art thou Elijah?"
And he said, "I am not."
"Art thou that Prophet?"
And he answered, "No."
Then said they unto him, "Who art thou, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What sayest thou of thyself?"
He said, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, "Make straight the way of the Lord," as said the prophet Isaiah."
And those who were sent were of the Pharisees. And they asked him, and said unto him, "Why dost thou baptize then if thou art not that Christ, nor Elijah, neither that Prophet?"
John answered them, saying, "I baptize with water, but there standeth one among you whom ye know not. He it is who, coming after me, is preferred before me, whose shoe's strap I am not worthy to unloose."
These things were done in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.note

In the gospel of John, we can also read that John the Baptist recognized Jesus as the coming one, declaring that he was "the lamb of God" that would "take away the sins of the world". This is a reference to the sacrifices in the Temple, which took away ritual impurities of the sacrificer. To think of Jesus (and his death) as a sacrifice, was a very Christian thought, and we may be a bit suspicious whether these words were ever spoken by the Baptist. After all, he had spoken about repentance that would purify the people, and there was no need for a human sacrifice.

The relation between John, now incarcerated, and Jesus is the subject of the text that is known as the "second Baptist block" in Q.

A report about Jesus went throughout all Judea and all the surrounding region. Then the disciples of John reported to him concerning all these things. And John, calling two of his disciples to him, sent them to Jesus, saying, "Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?"
When the men had come to him, they said, "John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, 'Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?'"
And that very hour he cured many of infirmities, afflictions, and evil spirits; and to many blind he gave sight. Jesus answered and said to them, "Go and tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of me."
When the messengers of John had departed, he began to speak to the multitudes concerning John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed those who are gorgeously appareled and live in luxury are in kings' courts. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written: Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you. For I say to you, among those born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he."
And when all the people heard him, even the tax collectors justified God, having been baptized with the baptism of John. But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the will of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him. And the Lord said, "To what then shall I liken the men of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another, saying: "We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we mourned to you, and you did not weep." For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, "He has a demon." The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, "Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!" But wisdom is justified by all her children."note

Jesus' remark "that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the gospel preached to them" are an almost verbatim quote from a text that was used by the sect that lived at Qumran and is known as 4Q521.

Machaerus, where John was kept prisoner

According to Flavius Josephus, John was executed in fort Machaerus because he had criticized the remarriage of Herod Antipas (more). In fact, it was not too strange to marry the wife of one's brother. There was, to the best of our knowledge, only one group that objected to this custom: the sect at Qumran. This again suggests that John's ideas were close to those of that group.

Mark has a slightly different story about John's execution.

Herod heard of Jesus, for his name was spread abroad. And he said, "John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and therefore these mighty works show forth themselves in him."
Others said, "It is Elijah," and others said, "It is a prophet, or like one of the prophets."
But when Herod heard of it, he said, "It is John, whom I beheaded; he has risen from the dead." For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and had bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife; for he had married her. For John had said unto Herod, "It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife."
Therefore Herodias had an inward grudge against him and would have killed him, but she could not; for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and holy, and kept him safe. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.
And when a convenient day had come, when Herod on his birthday gave a supper for his lords, high officers, and chief officials of Galilee, and when the daughter of the said Herodias came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, "Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it to thee."
And he swore unto her, "Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it to thee, unto the half of my kingdom."
And she went forth and said unto her mother, "What shall I ask?"
And Herodias said, "The head of John the Baptist."
And she came back straightway with haste unto the king and asked, saying, "I will that thou give me at once on a charger the head of John the Baptist."
And the king was exceedingly sorry, yet for his oath's sake and for their sakes who sat with him, he would not reject her. And immediately the king sent a speculator and commanded John's head to be brought. And he went and beheaded him in prison, and brought his head on a charger and gave it to the damsel; and the damsel gave it to her mother. And when John's disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse and laid it in a tomb.note

A speculator, it may be noted, was not a Jewish soldier. Mark uses a Latin expression that refers to a Roman soldier. This suggests that the Jewish courtiers of Herod Antipas were afraid of killing a man who was, they must have believed, on a mission from God.