Why do the Gospels care about John?
In the 20s CE, at least two prophets were active in the Israelite highlands: John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. Both were killed on political grounds. Jesus left behind disciples that remained loyal to him in some sense. So did John. In fact, these two religious groups interacted (vied for influence?) after the deaths of their leaders.
Ultimately, John’s religious group died out; Jesus’ following did not. With the exception of Josephus and a few other secular sources, the Christian gospels are our best source of information of the religious climate of this time period.
These Christian gospels spend an astonishing amount of time describing John: both his independent ministry, and his relationship with Jesus. John’s message that a powerful Son of Man will judge the world, is interpreted by Christians as referring to Jesus.
Why should the gospels lavish John with such attention and theological import? Two hypotheses suggest themselves,
- The early Christians shared a broader Jewish respect for John’s ministry, and that reverence led to the attention & theological significance.
- The early Christians crafted the gospels partially in effort to convert John’s disciples.
As we shall see, neither of these hypotheses are adequate. Instead, we shall see evidence suggesting that Jesus began his ministry as a disciple of John.
On Jesus’ Baptism
The gospels record that John baptized Jesus. This event is prima facie embarrassing for two reasons:
- Implications of imperfection. John’s baptism was clearly and consistently described as “for the forgiveness of sins”.
- Implications of subordination. This is the reason Matthew has the Baptist say “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”
Mark and Matthew combat with these implications by describing a theophany where God calls Jesus his Son. In contrast, Luke makes the Baptist a relative of Jesus, and has John imprisoned before Jesus’ baptism. We are never explicitly told who baptizes Jesus. And in the fourth gospel, John the Baptist is not the Baptist, the title is never used on him. He even denies that he is Elijah, even though in Matthew, Jesus flatly affirms that he is.
This incredible diversity of interpretations is due to a simple fact. At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry stands an independent Baptist, a Jewish prophet who won great popularity and reverence before and apart from Jesus, who also won the reverence and submission of Jesus to his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and who left behind a religious group that continued to exist apart from Christianity.
The Baptist constituted a stone of stumbling right at the beginning of the story of Jesus, a stone too well known to be ignored or denied, a stone that each evangelist had to come to terms with as best he could. The embarrassment of the evangelists is illustrated by the diverse, not to say contradictory ways in which they try to bend the independent Baptist to a dependent position within the story of Jesus.
A Common Vision
The gospels record that Jesus was baptized by this prophet. But why would he go? Since nobody compelled him, he must have gone to John because he agreed with John’s message.
There were lots of other groups vying for Jewish attention. Jesus did not join the Pharisees, who emphasized scrupulous observance of the Torah. He did not align himself with the Sadducees, who focused on the worship of God through the Temple cult. Nor did he associate with the Essenes, who formed monastic communities to maintain their own ritual purity. Nor did he subscribe to the teaching of the “fourth philosophy”, which advocated a violent rejection of Roman domination.
A Common Practice
Was Jesus’ baptism a singular event? Did he spend much time with John? Was he admitted into John’s inner circle?
Jesus’ first disciples were John’s disciples. If some disciples of the Baptist came to transfer their allegiance to him while they were still in the company of the Baptist, that suggests that Jesus had stayed in the Baptist’s orbit long enough for some of the latter’s disciples to come to know him and be impressed by him.
The fourth gospel admits that Jesus’ ministry included baptism. In fact, not ten sentences later, and that claim is baldy contradicted. However, several pieces of evidence suggest this is the (rather clumsy) work of a Johannine redactor.
Jesus practicing baptism is further reinforced by Mark 11:27-30: “The chief priests asked Jesus, “Who gave You this authority to do these things? Jesus replied, “One question, then I will tell you. Was John’s baptism from heaven or from men?”
The Sadducees were keen to admit John’s religious authority, and deny Jesus’. So why would Jesus invoke John’s baptism? A likely explanation is that it was an area of ministry overlap: the Sadducees couldn’t well admit John’s baptism was divine, yet criticize Jesus’ ministry which included that very baptism.
Jesus as Disciple
A picture is slowly emerging. Jesus began his public life as one of John’s disciples. This is the best explanation for his a) being baptized by John, b) taking John’s disciples, c) practicing John’s baptism. He slowly differentiated himself with the following teachings:
- Non-asceticism. John was renowned for his minimal lifestyle. Jesus was no stranger to parties, so to speak.
- Miraculous works. John’s ministry did not feature miracles. Jesus’ did, and he used this to illustrate his end-times message.
Yet despite these divergences, Jesus and John operated largely complementary ministries. Consider Matthew 11:16-19
To what should I compare this generation? It’s like children who call out to each other: “We played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance; we sang a lament, but you didn’t mourn!”
For John did not come eating or drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ Jesus came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
Yet wisdom is vindicated by her children.
This passage is remarkable because it places John and Jesus’ ministry side by side. Absent are theological claims of Jesus’ superiority. To be sure, John’s asceticism and Jesus’ non-asceticism are contrasted. Yet John (lamenter) and Jesus (flute player) are both children of wisdom.
Jesus after John
What was the relationship like between John and Jesus? Did they always function collaboratively, or competitively?
The details of this relationship are largely lost to history. Some evidence of tension can be inferred in how frequently Jesus was asked to clarify his relationship to John.
One of our most compelling clues, however, lies in the moving plea from Jesus to his former rabbi:
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent a message by his disciples and asked Him, “Are You the One who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news. And if anyone is not offended because of Me, he is blessed.”
Absent are the polemics so typical of Jesus’ sayings. This beautitude has an audience of one. This delicate appeal to his former rabbi: “please do not be offended because of [my origin]”. And yet here, tellingly, the conversation stops. We are not told John’s reply. The relationship is left ambiguous, as John heads for his execution by Herod Antipas.
After the execution of the Baptist, Jesus’ ministry developed by itself. And yet, as we will see, Jesus never fully emerges from the shadow of John. Their common ministry and message pervades the remaining years of Jesus’ ministry.