Jesus’ relationship to John the Baptist

[Jesus’ baptism]  Here, again, there are significant differences between the New Testament authors.  Although dependent upon Mark, Matthew and Luke depart noticeably from his account.  In Matthew, John initially declares himself unworthy to baptize Jesus (3.14).  In Luke, the baptism takes place after John has been incarcerated (Luke 3.20), the descent of the Sprit and the heavenly declaration of Jesus’ identity occur only subsequently, as Jesus prays (Luke 3.21).  In the Fourth Gospel the baptismal events are recounted by Jon after they have taken place.  These variations may have come about because the Gospel writers (apart from Mark) were uncomfortable with the implications for their Christology of the fact that Jesus underwent a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 3.6; Mark 1.4; Luke 3.3; Acts 13.24; 19.4):  something that we can also see disturbed second-century Christina authors (Ignatius, Ephesians, 18.2; Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, 88).  They may also have been concerned that the act of baptism by Jon could have been interpreted as indicating that the one baptized was in fact interior to the one doing the baptism.  (Justin Meggitt – Cambridge)

The Gospels then go on to say that Jesus was the one predicted by John [the Baptist]. Most contemporary scholars would see that to be a construct developed by the early church to help explain the relationship between the two. (Harold Attridge – Professor Yale)

Jesus may well have emerged from the circle of John’s followers. In several respects Jesus and John were similar: they were both perceived to be prophets; they both proclaimed God’s coming kingly rule; they both attracted large crowds”… …Both John and Jesus were seen as prophets. Both called for radical repentance. Both attracted crowed. Both had an inner group of disciples. Both taught their disciples to pray in a distinctive fashion. Jesus links himself closely with John: John and Jess are both sent by God – “God’s wisdom is proved right by both her children” (the original Q wording of Matt.11:19 = Luke 7:35)…. Both Jesus and John opposed the temple establishment….the comments of Josephus suggest that John and his followers were seen as a possible threat to political stability… Jesus may have been put to death for similar reasons, at least as far as the Romans were concerned…. Unlike John Jesus was not an ascetic… Unlike John Jesus stopped baptising. Unlike John, who remained in the wilderness, Jesus travelled from village to village… Unlike John, “who performed no miracle (John 10:41), Jesus performed numerous healings and exorcism. Unlike John Jesus shared table fellowship with tax collector sand sinners. Unlike John, whose prophetic preaching focussed on the future, Jesus announced that God’s kingly rule was breaking into the present now, through his own actions and words… Like John Jesus lead a renewal movement within Judaism… [however] the central theme of the proclamation of Jesus, the kingdom of God [is] a phase John does not seem to have used. (Graham Stanton – Professor Cambridge)

John’s emphases – repentance for sin, purification – were hardly exotic concerns within Second Temple Judaism.  The particular emphasis that John evidently placed on his own role as agent of this purification…. John’s call to moral renewal in the face of the coming Kingdom mean, precisely, keeping Torah – hardly unique themes in Jewish moral exhortation.  What characterises his particular preaching is his connecting observance specifically with bodily purification and apocalyptic warnings.  …. This concern to attend to the inner (what we would designate the “moral”) dimension of repentance before addressing the external protocols of atonement (purity, offerings, and the like) is a stock theme of Jewish penitential tradition in all periods. … … … What distinguished Jesus’ prophetic message from those of the others was primarily its timetable, not its content.  Like John the Baptiser, he emphasised his own authority to preach the coming Kingdom; like Theudas, the Egyptian, the signs prophets, and again like the Baptizer, he expected its arrival soon.  But the vibrant conviction of his followers even decades after the Crucifixion, together with the unprecedented phenomenon of the mission to Israel and the inclusion of the Gentiles, suggests that Jesus had stepped up the Kingdom’s timetable from soon to now.  (Paula Fredriksen – Professor Boston, Princeton, Stanford)

Although, like John [the Baptist], Jesus did foresee judgment for the unrepentant, the distinctive character of his mission lay in his conviction that the kingdom of his was already within reach, not yet as judgment, but as the power of God’s grace, mercy, compassion, healing and forgiveness. (Richard Bauckham – Professor St Andrews, Cambridge)

Jesus is commonly spoken of in the New Testament as the one who redeems and saves, as having redeemed the human race and brought it salvation; and in the Old Testament there are many references to God as redeeming and saving.  It was also known from the Old Testament, however, and emphasised by Jesus, that God forgives sins; but it would seem that many Jews were not convinced by a mere statement to this effect.  It was difficult for them to believe that the guilt of their sins had been completely cancelled.  Thus John the Baptist came calling on people to repent of their sins, but he also introduced the symbol of baptism to show that the guilt of their sins had been washed away. (William Montgomery Watt – Professor Edinburgh)

The story of Jesus was certainly not a unique one in first-century Judaea.  There were other prophetic religious figures from Galilee who attracted considerable followings before falling foul of the Roman authorities or their client kings, the most famous being John the Baptist.  What made the Christian sect stand out was that Jesus’ messianic claims did not die with him.  On top of this, Christianity’s growing focus on converting gentiles meant that it stopped being just another Jewish sect.  Paul of Tarsus was a key figure in this process of broadening the sect’s appeal.  His upbringing as a member of the Jewish elite and his status as a Roman citizen made him an unusual convert to Christianity, and he started to take the fledgling religious group in a completely new and ambitious direction.  Paul began missionary work across Syrian, Asian Minor and Greece, and it had a galvanizing effect; by the time of his death in the 60s the sect was still small, although well established in many of the larger cities in these areas.  The majority of the members of  these new Christian communities were gentiles, mostly artisans.  Perhaps because of the hostility they faced, originally from the Jewish elite and later form the Roman authorities, the Christians organised themselves well.  They had a clearly hierarchy and strong leadership from bishops and priests.  Their community had an ethos of charity that made it very attractive to the poorer sections of Roman urban society, who always looked favourably on any one who fed them and buried their dead.  (Richard Miles – Sydney and Cambridge)

Into such a religious context with its ferment of debate and diversity fit the movements of John the Baptist (urging a renewal of Israel in the wilderness and a new passage through the “sea” of the Jordan), and of Jesus of Nazareth round about AD 30 (Christian sources being at pains, somewhat apologetically, to subordinate the former to the latter).  Jesus’ central activities of teaching in the synagogues, attending the Temple services, keeping the festivals – and disputing with other teachers (especially represented , at least in later tradition, as sharpening his views against those of the Pharisees) – these place him in the mainstream of contemporary religious occupations.  And his central concerns fit comfortably into the continuing debate within the Judaism of the day, often characterized as they are with reformist tendencies: concerns for Temple purity and cleansing [references omitted], concerns for intentional purity in worship as well as in morals (e.g. Matt 5:21ff), concerns for the purity of the person (casting out of demons / curing the sick), concerns for love of neighbor (extended even to loving one’s enemies), concerns for restricting the sexual code of behaviour (with a restrictive view on divorce), concerns for giving primacy to moral (as opposed to ceremonial) law.  (Professor G.W. Clarke – University of Western Australia)

“The admission in the Gospels that Jesus was baptised by John is one of the most certain data of the tradition [appearing in all four Gospels]. It suggests that Jesus was for a time a disciple of John”. (Craig A. Evans – Professor Acadia, Princeton)

“…certainly the most influential figure in [Jesus’] life, John [the Baptist] gave Jesus the focus on purity that, in one form or another, became an emblematic feature of his activity”. (Bruce Chilton – Professor Yale)

Jesus remained in the land of Judaea and practised immersion (John 3:22)…. Jesus practised a ministry of immersion comparable to John’s. (Bruce Chilton – Professor Yale)

[Lord's Prayer]  When Jesus had finished praying, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his followers to pray.”  (Luke 11.1).

The story of Jesus was certainly not a unique one in first century Judaea. There were other prophetic religious figures from Galilee who attracted considerable followings before falling foul of the Roman authorities or their client kings, the most famous being John the Baptist. (Richard Miles – Sydney, Cambridge)

All scholars seem to agree that the close connection between the prophetic proclamation of John the Baptist and Jesus’ ministry is indeed historical. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Jesus must have known something about eschatological prophecy and that John the Baptist somehow played a role in the initiation of Jesus’ own ministry. Indeed, many scholars assign sayings that express an admiration for John the Baptist (Matt 11:7-11 par.) to the original sayings of Jesus. The message of the Baptist was political and utopian, elements which are definitely present in the missionary activity of followers of Jesus and in the tradition of sayings used by them. (Helmut Koester – Professor Harvard)

The Jewish historian Josephus tells us a number of stories about characters whose career could be crudely summarised as following: some guy wakes up in the morning and he thinks he’s the Messiah or something or he’s a prophet and he gets people to follow him… he says we’re going to go out in the desert and we’re going to wait for God to do something for us. So a whole bunch of people may go with him, maybe thousands go with him out to this deserted, unsecured place and they wait for what Josephus calls the tokens of their deliverance. And the Romans send a vicious police action out there and kill everybody. When that kind of police action is perpetrated against what we might consider harmless fanatics the Romans are really giving us a very good historical lesson in how domination works. (Allen Callahan – Brown and Harvard)

The recollection of Jesus’ baptism by John visibly caused problems for the earliest Christian tradition, on the one hand because of John’s apparent superiority to Jesus, and on the other because of the forgiveness of sins associated with the baptism, which indicated an awareness of sin on the part of Jesus. (Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz – Professors Heidelberg and Utrecht)

The only non-Christian account of John, provided by the Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities, 18.116-119), presents a very different picture of John the Baptist and makes no reference to him proclaiming anything about Jesus. (Justin Meggitt – Cambridge)

No person is more important for understanding the historical figure of Jesus than John the Baptist. (Justin Meggitt – Cambridge)

There is, however, some disagreement between the New Testament sources as to exactly what kind of forerunner John was. Although the synoptic gospels present him as a prophet like figure (Matt 11.9; Luke 7.26; Mark 11.31; Luke 20.6), and Matthew and Mark identify him, to varying degrees, with Elijah (Matt 3.4; Mark 1.6; 2 Kings 1.8; Matt 11.14; Matt 17:9-13; Mark 9:9-13) whose return was expected to inaugurate the arrival of the day of the Lord (Mal 4.5; Sirach 48.10), Luke downplays this association (see only Luke 1.17) and in the Fourth Gospel this identification is explicitly denied (John 1.21). (Justin Meggitt – Cambridge)

[Jesus’ baptism] Here, again, there are significant differences between the New Testament authors. Although dependent upon Mark, Matthew and Luke depart noticeably from his account. In Matthew, John initially declares himself unworthy to baptize Jesus (3.14). In Luke, the baptism takes place after John has been incarcerated (Luke 3.20), the descent of the Sprit and the heavenly declaration of Jesus’ identity occur only subsequently, as Jesus prays (Luke 3.21). In the Fourth Gospel the baptismal events are recounted by John after they have taken place. These variations may have come about because the Gospel writers (apart from Mark) were uncomfortable with the implications for their Christology of the fact that Jesus underwent a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (matt 3.6; Mark 1.4; Luke 3.3; Acts 13.24; 19.4): something that we can also see disturbed second-century Christina authors (Ignatius, Ephesians, 18.2; Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, 88). They may also have been concerned that the act of baptism by Jon could have been interpreted as indicating that the one baptized was in fact inferior to the one doing the baptism. (Justin Meggitt – Cambridge)

Both [John and Jesus] are depicted as preaching similar eschatological messages of judgment and repentance… and as demanding similarly high standards of righteousness… ; in the last days of his life, Jesus is shown as justifying his dramatic action in the temple by reference of John’s authority to initiate his baptism (Mark 11.27-33 and parallels). (Justin Meggitt – Cambridge)

Finally it should be noted that despite John the Baptist’s importance in the Gospels and Acts, he is not significant for all New Testament authors. Paul, for example makes no reference to him. (Justin Meggitt – Cambridge)

The evangelists would hardly have invented the idea that Jesus was himself baptised by John the Baptists, since it is clear from Matthew’s account that Christians were disturbed by the idea that a sinless Christ underwent a baptism of repentance. So the story itself is probably authentic. (Don Cupitt and Peter Armstrong – Cambridge and BBC)

Antipas’ relative absence from the account of Jesus’ public ministry in Galilee is noteworthy. The fact that Jesus’ mentor, John the Baptist, was murdered by him because of the threat of social unrest, might have applied to Jesus also, one would have imagined. Yet it is only Luke who suggests a direct threat from Antipas in Galilee… and he subsequently involves him, if only perfunctorily, in the trial in Jerusalem. (Sean Freyne – Professor Trinity College Dublin, visiting Professor Harvard)

[re John the Baptist]  Herod had him put to death, though he was a good man, and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice toward their fellow and piety toward God, and so doing to join in baptism…. When others too joined the crowd around him, because they were aroused to the highest degree by his words, Herod became alarmed.  Eloquence that had so great an effect on people might lead to some form of sedition, for they looked as if they would be guided by John in everything they did.  Herod decided that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising.  (Josephus AJ 18.116-119)

There are scholars who want to see all of this talk about this coming judgment of the Earth, and the catastrophes that are going to happen, as pure metaphor. And I think the reason they want to see it that way is because if you think that Jesus literally thought that there was going to be a coming end of the age well, it didn’t happen. And so Jesus would’ve been wrong. And some scholars are uncomfortable with the idea that Jesus could be wrong. I think the only way, though, to decide whether this is metaphor or meant to be taken literally is by looking at what other Jews in the first century were saying. And as it turns out, there were a lot of Jews who were talking about the literal end of the world as they knew it – including, for example, John the Baptist, who thought that the end was coming right away and that people needed to prepare or they would be judged; including the people who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are filled with this apocalyptic kind of thinking; and including Jesus’s own followers. The apostle Paul definitely feels that Jesus is coming back right away – that Jesus is going to be this cosmic judge – and that the Earth is going to be transformed. And Paul describes it not in metaphorical terms but in literally, what’s going to happen at the end. And so I think the desire for Jesus not to be literally meaning this is rooted in an understandable theological move, that you don’t want to have Jesus say things that didn’t come true. But if you actually situate to Jesus in his own historical context, this is the sort of thing that a lot of people expected was going to happen.  (Bart D. Ehrman Professor University of North Carolina)

John the Baptist… assumes that a vengeful God will violently come and
overthrow the Romans. “And you should be ready for it, wait for it, pray for
it.” We can be certain that John baptized Jesus. Jesus starts out under John —
he’s one of John’s crowd. And Jesus remains respectful of John but comes to
differ profoundly with him. I think what happened is that God didn’t intervene,
and Jesus changed.  (John Dominic Crossan – Professor Chicago)

According to almost everyone, one of the most certain things that we can
know about the historical Jesus is that he was a disciple of John the Baptist.
This is bedrock stuff and anyone familiar with Jesus research will know all
about why.  As it happens, I am inclined to agree with this; I suspect
that Jesus did indeed have an association with John the Baptist and that it was
important, in some way, in his development.  But how important was John
the Baptist, as an influence on Jesus, in comparison to other people?  We
know about the link between the two men because John the Baptist was himself
famous — Josephus devotes more time to him than he does to Jesus.  So the
tradition remembers and underlines the association between the two men. But our
influences are seldom solely other famous people.  Perhaps the major
influence on Jesus was his grandfather, whose fascination with Daniel 7
informed Jesus’ apocalyptic mindset.  Or perhaps it was Rabbi Matia in
Capernaum who used to enjoy telling parables drawn from local agriculture.
Or perhaps it was that crazy wandering Galilean exorcist Lebbaeus who
used to talk about casting out demons by the Spirit of God.  The fact is
that we just don’t know.  We can’t know.  Our knowledge about the
historical Jesus is always and inevitably partial.  If we take the quest
of the historical Jesus seriously as an aspect of ancient history, we have to
admit that many of the key pieces must be missing. The problem is that we are
in denial. We simply do not want to admit that we do not have all the data we
need to paint a complete picture of the historical Jesus. (Mark Goodacre –
Professor Duke)

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