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John the Baptist

JOHN THE BAPTIST (̓Ιωάννης ὁ Βαπτιστής). Called the “Baptist” (Matt 3:1) and the “baptizer” (Mark 6:14) to differentiate him from others of that name, and to call attention to his distinctive ministry. Born (c. 7 b.c.) to elderly parents of priestly descent, Zachariah and Elizabeth who was related to Mary the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:5, 36). His youth was spent in obscurity until he received a divine call to the prophetic vocation (3:2) and entered upon a public ministry. After John placed his seal of approval upon Jesus (John 1:24-36) their ministries overlapped for a time. Shortly thereafter John was arrested and put to death by Herod Antipas (Mark 6:27), leaving some disciples who had not joined Jesus’ movement.

The sources for the life of John the Baptist (hereafter known as John) are found chiefly in the four gospels and Acts of the NT, and in a reference in Josephus.

Mark—1:2-11, 14; 2:18; 6:14-29; 8:27f.; 9:11-13; 11:29-33

“Q”—Matt 3:7-10Luke 3:7-9

Matt 3:11, 12Luke 3:15-17

Matt 11:2-6Luke 7:18-23

Matt 11:7-11Luke 7:24-28

Matt 11:16-19Luke 7:31-35

Matt 11:12Luke 16:16

Matthew 3:14ff.



Luke 1:5-25, 57-66, 67-80






Acts 1:5, 22





John 1:6-8, 15, 19-40




Josephus, Antiquities XVIII. v. 2

References extracted from Slavonic Josephus and from Mandean materials cannot be safely used for the history of the 1st cent.


1. Importance. The NT places a very high estimate upon the importance of John and his ministry. There existed a real solidarity between the missions of Jesus and John. Of John, Jesus said, “among those born of women none is greater than John” (Luke 7:28). He was the forerunner of Christ (Mark 1:2). His rite of baptism became a central Christian ordinance (Acts 2:38). His imprisonment and death had a great effect upon Jesus (Mark 1:14f.). The Master regarded him as the second Elijah sent by God in accord with ancient prophecy (Mal 4:5; Mark 9:13). He was the greatest figure yet produced under the old covenant (Matt 11:11). He epitomized all the OT saints who stood at the threshold of the new order without entering in (Heb 11:39b). He does not deserve the neglect the Church often accords him.

His great importance lies in the fact that he bridged the old era and the new and was the link between the two. Neither Jesus nor John came preaching something absolutely new. Theirs was a word of fulfillment: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt 3:2; 4:17). The long-awaited messianic day was about to dawn. The records of the birth of John make his role very clear (Luke 1:5-25, 57-66, 67-80). He was to prepare a people for the Lord’s coming, and for that end would be filled with the Holy Spirit. The whole narrative has a strong OT flavoring: the angelic visits, the announcement of a child, his name revealed, his aged, childless parents. John was born into a pious Jewish home, grounded in the messianic promises of the Scriptures and looking for the hope of Israel. The parents were delighted with the baby John because he represented the rebirth of prophecy and the fulfillment of the eschatological hope. Psalms were sung to herald his birth. The theory that the Benedictus (Luke 1:67-79) was a hymn originally written to glorify Jesus but later applied to John is without foundation. Obviously, the first half of the hymn was directed to Jesus, of whose birth Zechariah was well aware (1:40), and the remainder of it exalted the preparatory role of John himself. The parents of John recognized from the outset the relative greatness of Jesus over John (1:41ff.). And in the relation of Mary to Elizabeth, Jesus had not only a tie with the house of David through Joseph (Luke 1:27; 2:4) and possibly Mary too (see [http://biblegateway/wiki/Genealogy of (Jesus) Christ GENEALOGY OF CHRIST]), but also with the line of Aaron through Elizabeth (1:36). As a descendant of both David and Aaron, Jesus was in an excellent position to present Himself as the One who was to come.

Radical criticism has sought to discredit the historical value of the birth narrative in Luke. The theory is widely held that the section was at first a document of the Baptist movement, embellished with legends, and exalting his position. The section is interpolated by one or two Christian stories, but left largely intact. There is, however, a complete lack of any evidence for the hypothesis. The creation of a Baptist sect to which these hypothetical sources are credited is poor criticism. There is no indication in any but the latest Mandean sources, themselves valueless as history, that John regarded Jesus with hostility or envied his rising fame and honor. All the data suggests that both John and his followers welcomed the advent of Christ and readily gave way to His leadership. The argument is wholly circular, which discovers in the sect the alleged sources that are then attributed to it. This kind of criticsm does not discredit Luke, but only the critics. The narrative in Luke bears all the marks of an authentic piece of historical tradition culled by the author in his research, which is generally credited with substantial accuracy. There was no motive in making John the son of an obscure priest if he was not. It is most unlikely that legends crept into the work of Luke, a first-rate historical source. Pessimism over his integrity is unwarranted and reflects an anti-supernaturalistic bias.

2. Ministry. Jesus held the ministry of John to be of the highest importance. For John was a part of the messianic complex of events that form the grand object of prophecy. He was called to be the great eschatological pioneer, the forerunner of the Messiah Himself. Although he exercised his ministry just before Jesus did, and belonged to the time of promise, yet in another sense he belonged also to the time of fulfillment. John was the line of demarcation in the history of salvation. In him the future predictions of the OT began to find fulfillment (Matt 11:10-15). Jesus strongly endorsed John’s ministry, indicating the close solidarity he felt with John’s calling. Although Jesus stated, “he who is least in the kingdom is greater than he” (11:11), He did not intend to depreciate the greatness of John who was foremost among the revered OT worthies, but rather to exalt the superb opportunities open to one who will partake of the messianic promises in Christ Himself (cf. Matt 13:17).

John entered dramatically onto the stage of history in a.d. 28. Clothed in a cloak of camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey, he proclaimed to all who would hear the need for repentance and rectitude of life. He located in southern Transjordania, not far from Judea, in the uninhabited country bordering on Antipas’ realm. Everything about him recalled the prophet Elijah—his mantle, existing in the wilderness, his message—and people flocked to hear him. His food and clothing indicated his rejection of official Israel of the time and his conviction of a prophetic calling. Like the Essene community, John withdrew from society; but unlike them he sought to reform it by his preaching. The wilderness represented more than a solitary place to John. It was the place to which Elijah had fled (1 Kings 19:4), and the place where God led His people to the promised land. The wilderness was a place where the Lord revealed Himself, and where some believed the Messiah would appear (Matt 24:26). The setting only added to the excitement that John’s ministry stimulated among the expectant people of Judea. He did not go to the desert to hide from people. In fact he attracted large crowds (Luke 3:10). The fourth gospel reveals that John’s ministry extended into Samaritan territory (John 3:23). Aenon near Salim where John baptized people is near to Nablus. Later when Jesus spoke of entering into the labors of others (4:38) he was no doubt referring to the work of John. Both men were contemptuous of the “sons of Abraham” who rested so complacently upon their inherited election, and both made mission trips into foreign areas.

It is not easy to fit John into the current pattern of Jewish sects and parties. With the discovery of the Qumran scrolls, a hypothesis has become popular that ties John in with the Essene community. Perhaps John, the son of aged parents, was left an orphan and adopted by the Essene community. The community was situated not far from John’s home or from the place where he began to minister. By the time of his ministry, however, John had broken any connection he had with them. Although it is true that similarities exist between John and the community, differences also exist, and the theory is entirely speculative. It would seem somewhat closer to reality to think that John made an attempt at following the profession of father, being under a solemn obligation to do so as a son, but was so disgusted by the political machinations and corruption he encountered in the priesthood that he concluded Israel deserved the divine wrath. Whereupon he separated himself from official religion and called upon men to form a righteous remnant. John and Qumran practiced baptism, both saw their ministry in terms of the “voice” prophecy (Isa 40:3), and both were ascetic, but the resemblance is superficial. On the other hand, the Qumran sect was a closed system in retreat from the world, and would have frowned upon John’s efforts to convert sinners. The degree of anticipation was different. Qumran still waited for the messiah to come; John knew He was already here.

The Jewish historian Josephus gives an interesting account of John the Baptist in his Antiquities, XVIII. v. 2.

But some of the Jews believed that Herod’s army was destroyed by God, God punishing him very justly for John called the Baptist, whom Herod had put to death. For John was a pious man, and he was bidding the Jews who practised virtue and exercised righteousness toward each other and piety toward God, to come together for baptism. For thus, it seemed to him, would baptismal ablution be acceptable, if it were not used to beg off from sins committed, but for the purification of the body when the soul had previously been cleansed by righteous conduct. And when everybody turned to John—for they were profoundly stirred by what he said—Herod feared that John’s so extensive influence over the people might lead to an uprising (for the people seemed likely to do everything he might counsel). He thought it much better, under the circumstances, to get John out of the way in advance, before any insurrection might develop, than for himself to get into trouble and be sorry not to have acted, once an insurrection had begun. So because of Herod’s suspicion, John was sent as a prisoner to Macherus, the fortress already mentioned, and there put to death. But the Jews believed that the destruction which overtook the army came as a punishment for Herod, God wishing to do him harm.

There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of this passage in Josephus. It shows no mark of Christian invention or interpolation. Josephus presents John as a humanistic philosopher advocating virtue, but suppresses the messianic overtones to his ministry, just as one would expect from Josephus writing for Roman and Greek readers. Josephus merely supplements what is known already from the gospels. The Antiquities bring out the political side to John’s ministry as Herod saw it, whereas the gospels emphasize the moral and religious side. Undoubtedly Herod feared the political consequences of John’s popularity. His moral charges only added fuel to the flames. The testimony of Josephus reminds us that the memory of John lasted a long time after his death.

3. Message. John was a preacher who stood in the tradition of the prophets, and he proclaimed the message God laid upon his heart. All of his preaching rings of OT imagery, content, and vividness. There is the winnowing fan, the threshing floor, the axe at the root of the trees, the brood of vipers, and a baptism with the Spirit. Prophecy was reborn in John’s message, and people flocked to hear him. His message included ethical instruction, prophetic denunciation, and eschatological teaching. All of his recorded thought roots back to OT teaching. The novel aspect about his ministry was the urgency with which he announced the relevance of his theme. The kingdom of God had drawn nigh (Matt 3:2). The OT saints had longed for the advent of God’s kingly rule over their nation for centuries; now its blessedness was about to be realized. The messianic claim is implicit in this announcement. John’s prediction of a mightier one to come after him is repeated no less than seven times in one form or other in the NT (Matt 3:11; Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16; John 1:25, 27, 30; Acts 13:25). He was content to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness (John 1:23). He pointed not to himself but to the One who would bear away sins and baptize with the Spirit (John 1:29, 33).

The good news was accompanied with severe denunciations of the status quo in Israel. Physical descent from Abraham did not guarantee the favor of God. Spiritual kinship with God must be evidenced in daily life. Even as a Gentile needed to be baptized to become a proselyte to Judaism, so the Jews needed to be baptized to become a part of God’s purified remnant of the latter days (Matt 3:10; 21:31). It was the hour of universal judgment, beginning with the house of Israel and extending throughout the world. The imminence of judgment in John’s preaching is plain. The work of judgment would belong to the ministry of the Messiah whose purpose it was to destroy wicked men and purge the remnant of sin. When Jesus came preaching “the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18), neglecting to emphasize the vindictive side of the prophecy in Isaiah (61:2), it gave John reason for pause. He hesitated for a time in his wholehearted support of Jesus’ claims for Himself because Jesus did not appear to be exactly the kind of Messiah he had expected. The explanation lies in Jesus’ own understanding of his twofold coming. The kingdom was present in its mystery form (Matt 13:11; Eph 3:5) in advance of its apocalyptic manifestation which was still future. John shared the OT time perspective of prophecy wherein the two comings of the Messiah were combined as one.

John followed his prophetic warnings about wrath with the appeal for repentance. A radical change of attitude resulting in a substantial alteration of life was demanded. His ethical instructions were exceedingly radical. When the multitude asked him what they ought to do to show their willingness to change, John gave some very harsh, practical steps to take. They ought to share their possessions with those who had none (Luke 3:11). The tax collectors ought to keep their demands within just limits (v. 13), a severe requirement because the job was not a pleasant one, and this policy could guarantee only the most meager earnings. The soldiers he asked to be content with their rations and to avoid all extortion and violence in the carrying out of their duties. He did not imply it was sinful to be a soldier. Forbidding pillaging of the local population could be a very large prohibition at a time when the soldiers were extremely hard up and in need of money or food. John made no effort to make his ethical demands palatable. Clearly exhortation (parenesis) goes along with proclamation (kerygma). Repentance and faith is to be accompanied with a serious attempt to reform one’s life. “Bear fruit that befits repentance” (Matt 3:8). A genuine experience of grace must reveal itself in spiritual fruit.

4. Baptism. The rite that John performed on penitent sinners was the outstanding feature of his whole ministry; yet he was by no means its originator. Its distinctiveness lay in the meaning John put into the act. Basically this had two facets: a messianic or eschatological orientation, and personal renewal in the life of the person baptized. John saw himself as a figure of the end times sent in accord with divine prophecy to set in motion the complex of events in which the Messiah would be revealed to Israel and the world. John’s water baptism was a sign of a greater baptism of the Spirit that the Messiah would administer. At the same time, John was conscious of the unworthiness of Israel to receive her messianic King. He was no universalist—God would deal with His people, not some other—yet John rejected the notion that simply being a Jew was enough to insure divine favor. Repentance and reform of life were prerequisites to entering the Messiah’s kingdom. Baptism was the first evidence of the sincere desire to alter one’s way of behavior.

From what source did John derive inspiration for his practice and theology of baptism? Scholars such as Lidzbarski have sought to relate John’s baptism with that of the Mandeans, but there is a serious problem of chronology. The Mandean sect arose centuries after the time of John and borrowed their rite from Nestorian Christians. Their esteem for John came in during the Islamic period. It is utterly impossible to detect any influence on John from such a source. Something of the same is true of Jewish proselyte baptism. It is questionable whether the practice existed in the time of John. It may have had an influence upon later Christian practices, but cannot be used as a sure source for John’s baptism. Differences also exist in essence. Proselyte baptism was politically and ritualistically oriented, whereas John’s was eschatological and ethical. One needs to be very cautious in assuming that proselyte baptism gives a model for John’s. The fact that it is not mentioned in the NT limits its usefulness. The most natural place to look for an antecedent is the OT itself. Ceremonial lustrations to effect purity are common in the ancient world and in the Bible. In Leviticus 15, bathing in water is prescribed to cope with uncleanness. All forms of Jewish baptism sprang from such a source. It is unlikely that any real distinction was made between outward bodily cleanness and inward spiritual purity. The outer lustrations had deep spiritual significance. The believer ought to have “clean hands and a pure heart,” an inner purging with hyssop as well as outward ablutions (Ps 24:4; 51:7). Ultimately, all baptism looks forward to the opening of a fountain that can cleanse from sin and uncleanness (Zech 13:1).

The Qumran sect carried on their activities very near the place where John began his, which is often pointed out as the source of John’s rite and theology. The Qumran community practiced baptism for repentance. Baptism could have no effect unless accompanied with sincere repentance (Manual of Discipline, ch. 5). There may be no distinction between inner and outer, but there is also no separation of the two. The practices at Qumran go a long way in providing a possible source for John’s baptism. The coincidence is striking, and a positive relationship may indeed have existed between them. There are, however, important differences to note before assuming any substantial identity. John’s baptism was a once and for all, final act of repentance, not to be repeated. There is no indication that the first baptism at Qumran was thought of as an initiatory rite. The whole tenor of John’s preaching was more urgent and eschatological than theirs. His message was offered to the whole nation, not to exclusive members of the sect. If he did borrow some of the ideas of Qumran, he altered them before use. More likely John saw his rite in terms of prophetic symbolism. The word of the Lord could be performed as well as preached. Adapting the practice of Jewish lustration to his purposes gave John the ideal instrument for putting his message before men. His baptism was a plenary cleansing from all sin and uncleanness, an eschatological act that united the penitent with the remnant Israel of the latter days.

5. John and Jesus. The earliest part of Jesus’ public ministry was spent in the circle of the Baptist. The fourth gospel makes this fact apparent. Theirs was one joint ministry. It is not simply that their work overlapped or that they worked in the same area, but rather, they shared a common outlook and concern. The cleansing of the Temple (John 2:13-22) shows Jesus putting into effect the terms of John’s prediction of purging and judgment. The first ch. in the ministry of Jesus is one of the closing chs. in the ministry of John, so closely related were they at this point. After His baptism, Jesus retired to the wilderness for fasting and prayer. Soon afterward, Jesus surrounded Himself with a band of disciples, and practiced baptism in Judea (John 1:35-51; 3:22). They carried on parallel ministries, both of them penetrating even into Samaritan territory. As Jesus’ fame grew, John’s diminished (John 3:30). While in association with John, however, Jesus remained in the background, concealing his identity from all but a few (2:24). At Cana only his mother knew the secret (2:3f.), but after Cana His disciples knew it also (2:11). Both Jesus and John claimed authority from heaven, for themselves, and for one another (Matt 21:23-27). Soon after John was arrested and imprisoned in the fortress of Macherus, Jesus began an open ministry in Galilee (Mark 1:14). John was able even in prison to keep in touch with the activities of Jesus through His followers (Matt 11:2). He was concerned about the progress of the eschatological event he himself had announced.

A question arises as to the identity of John. When John was approached by the party from Jerusalem, and asked if he was the Christ or Elijah, he replied emphatically in the negative (John 1:20f.). When Jesus ventured to reveal His evaluation of John, he affirmed unmistakably, “he is Elijah” (Matt 11:14). Is it possible that Jesus regarded him as Elijah, whereas John did not? John certainly played the part of Elijah, both the historical and the eschatological figure. Could he have done so without modeling himself upon the pattern consciously? He knew himself to be the forerunner of the Messiah (John 3:28). The answer must lie in the sense of the question posed to John. Although John lived in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17), and was called Elijah by Christ Himself, nevertheless, he was not Elijah redivivus in a literal sense. Figuratively he was Elijah, and he carried out the functions of the forerunner, but he did not want to accept the Jewish interpretation of this figure. He preferred to designate himself simply as “the voice” (John 1:23), because this title was not loaded with traditional misinter-pretations.

6. Death. The account of John’s death is the only major story in the gospel of Mark that is not about Jesus (Mark 6:17-29). It must have reached its place in the story of Jesus after being preserved and told by the disciples of John who claimed his dead body (6:29). Many radical critics regard the story as legendary, containing merely a historical kernel. It is clear from both Mark and Josephus that Herod regarded John as a prime instigator in the messianic ferment that gripped Judea. When he heard about Jesus’ miracles, he thought John must have been raised from the dead (6:14). John constituted a political threat to Herod’s reign, and when John also criticized the morals of Herodias, his bride, Herod locked John in prison. There is nothing intrinsically unlikely in the story and nothing historically impossible. The death had an effect on Jesus Himself. When He first heard of the arrest, He withdrew into Galilee, sensing danger to Himself (Matt 4:12); when He learned of John’s execution He went into a lonely place (14:13) doubtless to contemplate the dread meaning of this for His own future.

7. Followers. As the prophets of old, John and Jesus both gathered a band of disciples (Isa 8:14). Some of John’s disciples came to Jesus and joined His group (John 1:35-42). In a short ministry of six months, John had gained great popularity. “And there went out to him all the country of Judea,” records Mark (1:5). Loyalty to John’s memory was still strong several years later when Jesus played upon it to avoid answering a loaded question (Matt 21:26). John trained his men in prayer (Luke 11:1) and in fasting (Matt 9:14). Although Jesus Himself did not recommend fasting, He predicted that when He was taken away, His disciples would again fast (9:15). The Christian practice of fasting is found again in the Didaché (8:1). Long after the death of Jesus, Aquila and Priscilla met a Jew named Apollos who was a disciple of John the Baptist and came from Alexandria (Acts 18:24ff.), and soon after Paul encountered a band of twelve of John’s disciples at Ephesus (19:1-7). This indicates that John’s followers were fairly numerous and widespread long after his death. The two messianic communities were hardly in competition, because as soon as John’s disciples heard the Gospel of Christ, they gladly accepted the message. The gospels are plain in the conviction that Jesus had been under John’s ministry in the beginning and that he identified Jesus to be the One whose way he was called to prepare. Competition and rivalry are not the words to use in this context. The problem was one of complete correlation between the wide sections of support each man received separately. There is no evidence of conflict between the two groups until much later, when the Clementine Recognitions were written. But it is not known whether this group could actually trace their roots back to John, or whether they did not in fact simply adopt him as their patron saint because of their practice of baptism and their desire to outdo the Christian groups. Years later, Josephus could still write that many people in his day held to the theory that Herod suffered defeat because of his treatment of John, and this proves how deep a loyalty and impression John created in the minds of the men of his generation. Even today there exists a sect called the Mandeans that claims to perpetuate the movement begun by John the Baptist.

Without doubt, John the Baptist was a profound influence upon the people of his day and upon the birth and growth of the Church. His prophetic passion and burning zeal set the stage for the emergence of Jesus Christ.

Bibliography A. T. Robertson, John the Loyal (1911); A. Blakiston, John the Baptist and His Relation to Jesus (1912); C. H. Kraeling, John the Baptist (1951); A. S. Geyser, “The Youth of John the Baptist,” NovTest, I (1956), 70ff.; P. Winter, “The Proto-Source of Luke I,” NovTest, I (1956); K. Stendahl, The Scrolls and the New Testament (1957); J. Steinmann, Saint John the Baptist and the Desert Tradition (1957); J. A. T. Robinson, Twelve New Testament Studies (1962).