More on John the Baptist
Some historical background on John the Baptist and the movement that arose in his name. This is an addendum to the previous blog (below) on Elijah and should be read in conjunction with that.
The most difficult statement any human being could make is, "He must become greater; I must become less" (3:30). Such a statement cuts against the grain of human experience. Yet the Baptist seems to say similar things routinely in the Fourth Gospel (cf. 1:27, 30). You won't find such statements in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, where the Baptist is a great and heroic figure. Why is the Baptist's humility such an emphasis in the Fourth Gospel? A brief survey of Scripture and history proves interesting.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke the Baptist is described as a "Voice crying in the wilderness" (Isa 40:3, cf. Matt 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4), the Elijah of the End time (Mal 4:5, cf. Matt 11:14; 17:12; Mark 9:13; Luke 1:17; 9:19), and the Messenger who is to go before the Lord (Mal 3:1, cf. Matt 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27). In the Fourth Gospel, on the other hand, the Baptist specifically denies that he is the Elijah and describes himself only as "the Voice" (1:21-23). The Fourth Gospel, therefore, minimizes titles for John and multiplies titles for Jesus (1:1, 8, 18, 29, 38, 41, 49, 51, etc.). John describes himself in the humblest of terms. "I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals" (1:27), "He must become greater; I must become less" (3:30).
Modern readers of the Gospel could get the impression that the Baptist appeared out of nowhere, baptized Jesus and then faded into the woodwork, never to be seen or heard from again. Historically, however, the Baptist and the movement of those who followed him seem to have been quite independent of Jesus. Only a few of the Baptist's disciples actually left him and followed Jesus, at least initially (1:35-51 cf. Matt 11:2, 3). The Baptist continued to minister and draw crowds for some time after the baptism of Jesus (3:22-30). In the book of Acts, the personal history of Apollos in Alexandria (Acts 18:24-26) and the story of the twelve men of Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7) both suggest the continuing independence of the Baptist movement. Even today, the Mandaeans, located primarily in Southern Iraq, are a small group of people who trace their religious heritage back to the ministry of John the Baptist more than to Jesus or Mohammed.
Many of those attracted to the Baptist in the wilderness, therefore, never gave their allegiance to Jesus but continued to follow the Baptist. At some point, probably after the writing of Matthew, Mark and Luke, but before the writing of the Fourth Gospel, the Baptist movement seems to have become increasingly hostile to Christianity. Since the Baptist himself was martyred because of political involvement, the movement may have found common cause with the zealots and other revolutionaries during the war with Rome (67-70 AD).
Knowing the gospel story as we do, it seems incredible that any follower of the Baptist would have failed to grasp the superiority of Jesus. But there are historical and theological reasons why many may have done so. First of all, there was the perception, not uncommon today as well, that when it comes to theology, earlier is usually better (Jesus appeals to this principle in Matt 19:3-9, for example). The "old paths" are to be preferred. Since the Baptist arrived before Jesus did, many Jews would have assumed that the Baptist was greater than Jesus.
A further reason why many might have regarded the Baptist as greater than Jesus was that the Jewish tradition of the time contained the belief that there would be not one, but two messiahs in the last days, a Messiah from the tribe of Judah, and a Messiah from the tribe of Levi (Russell, 304-323). The Messiah from out of Judah was to be a kingly Messiah, while the Messiah from the tribe of Levi was a priestly Messiah. In the Old Testament both kings and priests were anointed (Lev 8:1-13; 1 Sam 10:1; 16:1-13; 1 Kings 1:28-40, etc.)! Therefore, the expectation grew in some circles that the Messiah (Hebrew— "anointed one") could not be summed up in one person but would require at least two. When John the Baptist (of the tribe of Levi) and Jesus (of the tribe of Judah) appeared together, it is not surprising that people would assume that these traditions had found fulfillment in the relationship between John and Jesus.
Contrary to the modern ascendancy of politics over religion, the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls considered the priest to be greater than the king. After all the High Priest Aaron took office hundreds of years before the first king ever ruled over Israel. Earlier is better! Not only so, but it was priests who anointed kings, and not the other way around! Ancient Israel was a theocracy ("ruled by God") and God was to be found in the temple, not in the king's palace.
What kind of arguments could first-century Christians bring to bear against the Baptist theology? For one thing, they would point out that Jesus fulfills the role of both king (Matthew, Mark and Luke—"the kingdom of God") and priest (Hebrews) in one person. The Old Testament forerunner of such a king-priest was Melchizedek (Gen 14:18-20; Psalm 110, cf. Matt 22:41-45 and parallels in Mark and Luke; Acts 2:29-36; Heb 1:13; 5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:1-28 etc.), and to some extent, perhaps, also Moses, who exercised both priestly and kingly functions (Exod 24:3-8; 32:1-14, 31, 32; Deut 1:6-3:29; 1 Cor 10:2; Heb 3:2-5). Christians would also argue that earlier revelation is not necessarily better, the present revelation in Christ is actually superior to the old revelation (John 1:17, cf. Heb 1:1-3).
But author of the Fourth Gospel does not approach the issue from these perspectives in 1:19-51. In this Gospel, instead, the concern is to explain why the Baptist came on the scene before Jesus did. The Baptist arrived before Jesus not because he was greater than Jesus (6-8!) but because it was his job to introduce Jesus to the nation (29-34). This could only happen if he came to prominence first. Earlier is not necessarily better. The Baptist was the forerunner, not the real thing. In his heavenly role, Jesus pre-existed the Baptist (1, 15, 30). The message of John is that those who rank the Baptist greater than Jesus disbelieve the testimony of the Baptist himself.