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Essays on John the Baptist: Redemptive Figures (1)

In this new six part series I present responses to essays offered in my course at UNC Charlotte on “John the Baptist.” John is the most underrated figure in Christian tradition, rarely given his due as a messiah and inaugurator of the movement Jesus himself arose from. The responses are by my student, Jeff Poplin, now a USAF Lt Colonel, fighter pilot, married with two boys. Jeff wrote them without notes in response to exams given in the course! They offer a good, concise, and rather extraordinary summary of what we covered in the course:

Discuss the complex of traditions found in the Hebrew Bible concerning the expectation of messianic or redemptive figures, whether Prophet/Teacher, Priest, or Davidic King/Ruler. Briefly cover the origins of the basic idea of “anointed figures,” in ancient Israel, then examine the main texts, images, concepts, and ideas, related to the arrival and mission of specific redemptive/messianic agents.

To discuss the basic idea of “anointed figures” (Messiah, Christ/Christos), one must first examine how or with what such figures are anointed. Oil, we are told, is the substance chosen to do the deed so to speak. Exodus 30:22 is our introduction to how God (YHVH) instructed Moses to make this “messiahing” oil from cinnamon, cassia, spices, etc. and how to anoint an individual, thus making them a Messiah. Psalm 45:7 also refers to this by recording God has anointed you with the “oil of gladness.” From the instruction of Moses, this ritual has come to symbolize the making of an ordinary individual into a public figure, one set apart from the others for having been chosen and gone through the rite of passage. Incorporated into this theory or idea of having importance to become anointed, the anointer must be greater than the anointed.

john-the-baptist

 

Numerous examples can be found to support this: Exodus 40:13 Moses anoints Aaron making him the first messiah in the biblical traditions (priestly), I Samuel 10 shows how Samuel anointed Saul, and I Kings 1:39 Zadok anoints Solomon. Again we can see the importance placed by the Israelites on this ritual of taking oil and actually pouring it onto the head of another to anoint him. Isaiah 61:1 talks about the spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the LORD has anointed me. Another reference surprisingly appears in Sirach 45:15 addressing the occasion of Moses anointing Aaron as the first messiah with the holy oil. However, it is not only this ritual the people are interested in, it is the person. Throughout the Old Testament, one can find examples of the Hebrews looking for and believing in an “anointed” individual. They see him as coming or arriving on the scene and having a mission from God to carry out. Although they look for the anointed, this does not necessarily imply it is one individual. However, a text may not present multiple messiahs but individuals looking at texts with an idea or notion of two and sometimes three messiahs may apply such a concept. In the middle appears the Teacher/Adon, with a Kingly and Priestly messiah on his right and left side. One indication of this comes in Exodus 17:8-12. Moses is pictured in the middle with Aaron (a Levite) on one side and Hur (Judah) on the other. Looking back to the anointing of Aaron, since he was from the tribe of Levi, he is considered the represent the priestly christ or messiah. Traditions in I Samuel show the tribe of Judah represented by Saul, David, and later Solomon is the other half of the equation being a kingly messiah. Zechariah also contains a three-figure scenario in which one may see three messiah-like figures. Zechariah 4:2-4, 13 has a lampstand of gold centered (Adon) and is flanked by two olive trees on opposing sides. Psalm 80 reinforces the position of the right hand in verse 17, “let your hand be upon the one at your right hand.” To highlight the priestly messiah theme, one must turn to Psalm 110:4, “you are a priest according to the order of Melchizedek (one who blesses Abraham in Genesis 14). With the arrival of one or both Messiah figures, the texts explain a mission he/they are to engage in to save the Israelite race from the evil doers. Isaiah 9:1-7 is a good example of events to come upon his/their arrival. The beginning is signaled through the arrival of a child, appearing as a light in the land beyond the Jordan (Gentile territory). Once in power, this occupant of the “throne of David” (Isaiah 11:1) will bring endless peace, establish and uphold justice, and authority will rest on his shoulders. Isaiah 11 continues explaining the rule of the Messiah, this shoot out of the stump of Jesse. He shall judge the poor and meek, bring peace so the calf will lie with the wolf, and wolf with the lamb. Most endearing to the people in Isaiah 11:10-16 when the messiah will restore all the lost tribes of Israel from Assyria to Egypt, from Elam to Hamath. Part of the messiah’s mission too is to occupy the “throne of David,” ruling Judah (Jeremiah 22:30). Their Messiah will come with the clouds and to him is given dominion and glory and kingship that all nations should serve him (Daniel 7:13-14). Although the term “messiah” or “Davidic messiah” is never used in the Hebrew Bible, the most complete portrait of a Davidic Messiah can be found in Isaiah 2, 9, 11, and Micah 5.

Extra:  Did John the Baptist Eat Bugs?



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Essays on John the Baptist: Messianic Expectations (2)

In this new six part series I present responses to essays offered in my course at UNC Charlotte on “John the Baptist.” John is the most underrated figure in Christian tradition, rarely given his due as a messiah and inaugurator of the movement Jesus himself arose from. The responses are by my student, Jeff Poplin, now a USAF Lt Colonel, fighter pilot, married with two boys. Jeff wrote them without notes in response to exams given in the course! They offer a good, concise, and rather extraordinary summary of what we covered in the course:

In the 1st centuries BCE Messianic expectations among various forms of Palestinian Judaism were apparently widespread and complex. Both the John the Baptizer movement and the Jesus movement develop out of these contexts. Other than the New Testament materials, our best textual evidence of the ways in which such apocalyptic groups were casting their messianic hopes and dreams is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and related apocalyptic literature. Using Qumran as your main example, what composite picture emerges of the ways in which such groups appropriated the Messianic materials of the Hebrew Bible (as covered in question 1 above)?

The Qumran group has been emphasized as a breakaway movement of priests from the Essenes. They moved to the desert and set up a community along the shores of the Dead Sea, possibly following the doctrine of separation and preparing the way in the wilderness philosophy set forward in Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1. Fortunately, scholars have been able to recover some writings of this community dubbed “The Dead Sea Scrolls.” One important piece of this puzzle of their views on apocalypticism and messianic material is the Community Rule (1QS). Column VIII instructs its members to separate from ungodly men and go into the wilderness to prepare the way of Him. Column IX states, “this is the time for the preparation of the way in the wilderness.” Both these phrases reflect the groups awaiting of a coming messiah and following the words of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. Most interesting is Column IX of the Community Rule. It read, “…there shall come the Prophet and the Messiahs of Aaron and Israel.” Presented here is an idea of three figures (similar to Exodus17, I Samuel, and Zechariah 4, 6). Here the Prophet is unmistakably the “prophet like Moses” figure in Deuteronomy 18:15-18. Messiahs in this context is plural and it specifically states two of them (of Aaron and Israel). This reverts back to the notion of a priestly messiah (Exodus 40:13) representing Aaron on one side of the Adon and of a kingly messiah (I Samuel 10) representing Israel/Judah/David on the other.

4Q521

The Damascus Document is another valuable document allowing scholars to analyze and interpret the Qumran ideologies. From this text, unlike the Community Rule where one had not shown up yet, it appears the group came to believe they experienced the Adon/Prophet like Moses but not the two messiah’s. He is referred to as the Teacher of Righteousness as seen in Column VI of version A “until he comes who shall teach righteousness.” Column VII again visits the groups mentality of there being two messiah’s. It makes reference to the star (interpreter of the Torah) as the priestly messiah, coming from Damascus (Isaiah 9:1-2) and the scepter as a kingly messiah figure. This wording would suggest they were studying Numbers 24:17 and picked up the language of star and scepter. Version B of the Damascus Document is thought to come later as it mentions in Column VIII the “gathering in” or death of the Teacher of the community. The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs are documents also found in the Qumran material. They are said to be, although seriously doubted by scholars, the last words of Simeon and Dan. This Qumran two messiah tradition is visible in Column VII when it speaks of Israel submitting to Levi and through Judah (priest and king) because it is from them salvation will come. Plural messiah are implied here. One of the most fascinating finds was a copy of Malachi from Qumran that differs from modern day texts. In chapter 3, the text is talking of God sending a messenger to prepare the way and in verse 2 states, “but who can endure them, they come.” Present day texts state “who can endure the day of his coming.” Here we have a first century BCE text not affected by time or translation, showing a plural messiah tradition. What can be said of the Qumran group at this point? They appropriated messianic materials of the Hebrew Bible in such a way as to transform their way of life. First by moving to the desert and preparing the way Isaiah 40:3 for the coming messiahs. Relying on Exodus, and Zechariah, they formed ideas of the three figures: Adon, Priest(Aaron), and King (Israel) and wrote about them in community documents while awaiting their arrival. With the arrival of the teacher (died in 50 BCE), they thought this was it by sadly saw no messiah’s. However, after the teacher’s death, hope stayed alive for another century or so until the group finally disappeared without their prophecies or hopes coming true.



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Essays on John the Baptist: The Q Source (3)

In this new six part series I present responses to essays offered in my course at UNC Charlotte on “John the Baptist.” John is the most underrated figure in Christian tradition, rarely given his due as a messiah and inaugurator of the movement Jesus himself arose from. The responses are by my student, Jeff Poplin, now a USAF Lt Colonel, fighter pilot, married with two boys. Jeff wrote them without notes in response to exams given in the course! They offer a good, concise, and rather extraordinary summary of what we covered in the course:

Discuss the portrait (role, teachings, significance, etc.) of John the Baptizer that emerges from the Q Source (Lukan version), including the possibility that Lukan material such as 3:10-14 and 7:29-30 (and maybe even more), may well have been part of the original Q text (included by Luke but excluded by Matthew). Ask yourself: if all I knew was the John of Q, what kind of John would emerge?

The Q source is widely held to be the material common to Luke and Matthew, but not found in Mark. Scholars believe that is was a collection of the sayings of Jesus around the time of 50 C.E. Basing the discussion on the Lukan version of Q, a very distinctive portrait of John the Baptist emerges within the text. It is clear that John plays an important role from the beginning as the Q material begins with him instead of Jesus. In Luke 3:7-9 John is speaking to the multitudes, calling them a “brood of vipers,” and somewhat chastising them for not being more involved in the movement and with their own lives. This is the most solid Q example scholars have because it is word for word with Matthew in Greek. For such a document to start with John the Baptist instead of Jesus has strong implications and definitely displays the significance and importance John held to the author/people of the time. John is out in the wilderness of Judea baptizing all that come to him. Q even has John saying in Luke 3:16-17 that he baptizes people with water yet there is one greater than he who will come and baptize the multitudes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Jesus is considered the leading figure of Christianity, well it was based on him, but nevertheless John is considered one of the major players in the movement and considered significant by the author of Q.

Brueghel JtB

 

In Luke 7:18-23, one finds John sending two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he is “he who is to come or shall we look for another?” Jesus heals a few people and then sends John’s disciples back to tell “John what you have seen and heard.” To begin with, John is on the scene before Jesus ever arrives into the picture plus John has his own disciples. He is an important leader of a community of followers in the wilderness, preparing the way of YHVH, and is doing so with his own set of followers independent of Jesus. By Luke 7:24-26 one sees the importance John holds in a question Jesus asks to the crowds about John. This is the main statement scholars have regarding John the Baptist. Jesus spoke to the crowds concerning John asking, “what did you go out into the wilderness to behold?” From this simple question, there are three answers offered; a reed shaken in the wind, a man clothed in soft raiment, and a prophet. After two failures, the people give the answer Jesus was looking for in their third response. “A prophet, yes, I tell you, and more that a prophet.”

Being a prophet is the highest rank one can obtain in Judaism, so for Jesus to say John is more than a prophet has strong implications as to his status within the religious community. It shows that even Jesus is of the opinion that John is someone special, doing what the LORD has commanded him to do, and that the people should listen to and heed his words carefully for he is “more than a prophet.” Adding to this is Jesus’ statement in Luke 7:27 where he is referring to John as the one spoken about in Malachi 3, saying this is he (John) of whom it is written, “behold I send my messenger before thy face who shall prepare thy way before thee.” Luke 7:28 contains one of the most important statements about John spoken by Jesus. “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater that John.” This simple statement adds considerably to the portrait of John in the Q source. Here is Jesus, considered to be the son of man, speaking of John as the greatest of all those born of women. Being born from Mary, this puts Jesus into that group as well.

The Q source also adds to John’s profile by explaining what not eating and drinking mean. In Luke 7:31-34, it states that John has come eating no bread and drinking no wine. This shows the reader that John was a vegetarian and abstained from wine, unlike the Son of man and others who are considered gluttons and wine bibbers. Also an important addition to the role John plays is Luke 16:16 where it reads “the law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently.” Here is an excellent verse showing the status John was afforded. Reading this, one notices that it is John who has brought a new covenant to the land of Israel and not Jesus. In addition, Luke 11:2-4 has Jesus’ disciples coming up to him asking to be taught the prayer John taught his own disciples. Here we have Jesus’ own disciples asking him not for his own prayer, but the one John taught his disciples and Jesus begins “when you pray, say…” Preserved here is quite possibly the very prayer John taught his disciples and it is of such importance that the disciples of Jesus wish to learn it too. There are a handful of teachings throughout Luke that are attributed to Jesus but are without any context. Scholars have suggested that these could very well be the original teachings of the Baptist. Some of these teachings are like blessed are the poor (6:20), be merciful (6:32), a blind man can not lead the blind (6:39), do not be anxious about your life (12:22), and no servant can serve two masters (16:13). It can and has been argued that these could have come from John. He and Jesus have geographic connections – Wadi el Yabis and the Jordan River. Family wise their mothers are related, both baptize, and both have disciples. Both carry very thematic teachings like care for the poor, repent and baptize, accept sinners, and the coming kingdom. It could be that these were the original teachings of John and are attributed to Jesus because he picked them up when he picked up the Baptist movement when John was arrested and imprisoned by Herod. Luke 3:10-14 is what scholars label as “maybe Q” – at least entertained as being a possible part of Q but not exactly fitting the definition. It is the only major teaching of John scholars can ascribe to him without doubt. This teaching contains many of the same themes as the various other teachings as stated above, attributed to Jesus but without any context. Here one can see John is telling the people if “you have two costs, give one away,” that sinners (tax collectors) are welcome in the kingdom also, and not to take money under false pretenses. Luke 7:29-30 is also with the “maybe Q” group of texts. Although set in parenthesizes, these too sound familiar to 3:10-14 above in that sinners (tax collectors) are accepted because they had been baptized by John and that the Pharisees and the lawyers had rejected God’s purpose since they rejected the baptism of John. Given such evidence, one can draw the conclusion that such teachings could be from the original Q source and that the various other out of context teaching running throughout Luke 6, 11, and 12, which are attributed to Jesus, could actually be those of John the Baptist.



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 Essays on John the Baptist: Mark our Earliest Narrative Source (4)

In this new six part series I present responses to essays offered in my course at UNC Charlotte on “John the Baptist.” John is the most underrated figure in Christian tradition, rarely given his due as a messiah and inaugurator of the movement Jesus himself arose from. The responses are by my student, Jeff Poplin, now a USAF Lt Colonel, fighter pilot, married with two boys. Jeff wrote them without notes in response to exams given in the course! They offer a good, concise, and rather extraordinary summary of what we covered in the course:

Leaving aside the Q portrait of John, what emerges in the Markan narrative regarding the figure of John the Baptizer? In other words, what does “Mark as Mark” contribute to the tradition?

Mark contains many notable additions to the Q portrait of John. This gospel was written around 70 C.E. and has the tendency not to tell the reader secrets, instead letting them figure things out for themselves. Mark 1:2-3 is crediting Isaiah with a prophecy that isn’t entirely his own. Instead, it is a combination of Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1. “Behold I send my messenger before thy face who shall prepare thy way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Mark is utilizing a Qumran (pesher) style of combining texts to get his message across to the reader. He does this as an introduction to John (like Q he begins with John the Baptist). From Mark, scholars are able to add to their professional portrait of John and one of the first examples is Mark 1:6. It reads, “now John was clothed with camel’s hair and had a leather girdle around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.” Mark is describing some of the physical characteristics of John’s daily life in the wilderness of Judea. Scholars learn what he wore while “preparing the way” and what he ate (since it is already know that he neither ate nor drank) “locusts and wild honey.” As a side note, locust in Greek is akris and manna is ekris (only one letter difference) – it is possible that the Greek was translated incorrectly and John ate manna (honey wafer) instead of locusts (see the essay Did John the Baptist Eat Bugs or Pancakes?). Mark 1:9 also adds to the portrait that John in the Jordan baptized Jesus of Nazareth. After Jesus came out of the water, he saw the Spirit descending upon him like a dove, Mark 1:10-11. Here, Mark is relaying to the reader that this is more of a personal disclosure to Jesus in that only Jesus saw the spirit and the voice said, “thou art my beloved son.” Mark has Jesus in 1:14 coming onto the scene after John was arrested – almost signaling that since the main person/teacher (John) is removed from the scene, now one must come to take up the movement. Mark contains a wonderful story of John’s capture and subsequent death by the hands of King Herod. Mark 6:14 introduces the plot in that Jesus has been preaching and casting out demons and when Herod heard of it, some said, “John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead.”

Beheading Reubens

Then in Mark 6:16-29 the fate of John is told in detail – this is a very important addition to our running portrait of John the Baptist. Josephus records that Herod seized John and most likely took him to his palace/fortress Machaerus. While there, Herodias’ daughter danced seductively for Herod and in return he promised her anything, up to half of his kingdom. She asked for the head of John the Baptizer on a platter at the instruction of her mother (presumably because of his rejection of Herod and Herodias’ relationship). To stay true to his word, Herod sent a soldier to behead John and brought it in on a platter as requested. The reader is also made aware that after this had taken place, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. Another interesting addition Mark makes is Mark 8:27-30. Jesus and his disciples were heading to the village of Caesarea Philippi and he asked them “who do men say that I am?” Their first answer was “John the Baptizer.” Presented here is a strong indication of the importance John had in his time that the disciples and general public would say that Jesus was John the Baptist. John had done many great things in the desert (preaching, baptizing, etc.) and when Jesus comes along doing similar actions, the people begin to think John has come back from the dead in another form. Some scholars have even suggested that John and Jesus looked similar physically. From these reports, the general public, disciples, and even King Herod feel that John the Baptist has come back from his execution and if Jesus and John did in fact look similar, it would make sense that such reports would begin to circulate. Mark 9:9-13 details a conversation between Jesus and his disciples regarding the scribes recording that Elijah must come first. Jesus says to them (Mk. 9:12) that “Elijah does come first to restore all things” and then poses a question (Mk. 9:12) “how is it written of the Son of man, that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?” He is alluding to Daniel 7:13 “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven,” yet the Son of man is not suffering in that text. He then goes on to say in Mark 9:13, “but I tell you that Elijah has come and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him”(Zechariah 13:7). Jesus is clearly hinting here that John is Elijah return but as it is written of him? Scholars are not sure what this is in reference to, but there are four suffering servant hymns – Isaiah 42, 49, 50,53. Jesus may not be referring to a specific line of text, but a combination of these Isaiah hymns to form a “corporate role” so to speak for any servant of God, here John. Mark is showing the reader the importance John not only held to his disciples, but the high regard that Jesus himself held John to be. Finally in Mark 11:27-33, the chief priests, scribes, and elders confront Jesus asking “by what authority are you doing these things or who gave you this authority?” It is as if John is the benchmark test against which all things are measured and if you cannot speak to that, then Jesus will not speak to you. Mark is giving the information as he received it. He is not pushing an objective per se, it appears as though he presents the material fairly – showing the events in John’s life and portraying the events in Jesus’ life without editing either for a specific purpose. From Mark (as discussed above), scholars have learned a great deal relating to John’s clothing, his diet, disciples, and the manner in which he met his death. Also, readers are shown the importance in which John was held to his own disciples, the public at large, to Herod, and even to Jesus. From Mark, scholars are able to draw a fairly detailed and complete profile of who the historical figure of John the Baptist was.



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 Essays on John the Baptist: How Matthew Recasts His Markan Source (5)

In this new six part series I present responses to essays offered in my course at UNC Charlotte on “John the Baptist.” John is the most underrated figure in Christian tradition, rarely given his due as a messiah and inaugurator of the movement Jesus himself arose from. The responses are by my student, Jeff Poplin, now a USAF Lt Colonel, fighter pilot, married with two boys. Jeff wrote them without notes in response to exams given in the course! They offer a good, concise, and rather extraordinary summary of what we covered in the course:

Matthew, in combining Q and Mark, and including his edited version of the John the Baptist materials, becomes our first synthesizer of the “two source” tradition in this regard. First, how well do these two sources fit together? Are they essentially compatible or incompatible? Second, how does Matthew skillfully edit and/or modify, either Q or Mark, to reflect his own approach and understanding of John the Baptizer? What appear to be his concerns in this regard?

Matthew incorporates the Mark and Q material without any major problems. These two sources are complementary to each other, with Q laying the foundation portrait of John through his sayings, teachings, role and Mark coming in with additional material concerning John’s life and importance to the people, building upon that foundation a more complete composite of the historical figure. For the purposes of Matthew’s objective, Mark and Q are like two interlocking pieces of a puzzle; although separate works, they come together easily and are indeed compatible/complementary to each other. Matthew does have an objective he is pushing throughout his material and it is readily apparent to even an unskilled observer. As an overall blanket statement, it could be said that Matthew “sanitizes” Mark. He is pushing the notion that Jesus must increase and John must decrease. Whenever there arises a problem in conflict with this, Matthew tends to eliminate such problems and offers explanations/clarifications in some instances, more on that in a bit.

John-the-Baptist-with-Jesus

 

Matthew generally leaves the material, as it is when nothing bothers his intentions, but opts to rewrite when a conflict arises. His utilization of the Q source (teachings) usually stay the same, however he shortens Mark (stories). However, Matthew does keep many of the same elements of Mark and Q, most notably the clothes and food, baptizing, arrest of John, and fasting are all the same. Now on to some specific examples of the differences. Matthew 3:3 is using the same basic quote as Mark attributed to Isaiah and the difference here is Matthew is only quoting Isaiah and not a combination of that and Malachi. Here he is removing the appearance of ignorance. Matthew 3:7 has John calling only the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers.” In Q, everyone is called this – clearly Matthews intention is to slam the other religious sects of Judaism (as he does later in Ch. 23). One of the major differences Matthew has is in his explanation of the baptism of Jesus by John. Chapter 3:13-17 records this event and Matthew adds his own little twists. First, he feels the need to explain why Jesus would need to be baptized (for he is without sin right?). Jesus comes saying (Mt. 3:15) “for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” In 3:17, the voice from heaven came making a public announcement, as opposed to the private disclosure in Mark saying, “this is my beloved Son.” Matthew 11:12-13 differs from Q (Lk. 16:16) in that Q has John bringing the new covenant and here it only has the prophets prophesizing up until him and not “since then the good news of the kingdom is preached” as in Lk. 16:16. Matthew 11:18-19 tells the reader that John came neither eating nor drinking, differing from Q (Lk. 7:31-34) where one is told what he did not come eating (bread) of drinking (wine). In Matthew 14, the death of John is shortened but has no emphasis change. Another major difference in Matthew is that in 17:9-13, he does have Jesus saying John is Elijah already come but drops the Mk. 9:13 comment “as it is written of him.” The final major difference is that he completely drops Luke 3:10-14 “maybe Q” from his writings. This is certainly an important teaching of John and one of the only solid examples of such and there exists no trace of it anywhere in Matthew. Throughout all of Matthew’s skillful edits/modifications, it would appear that his concerns are that his Lord Jesus must be set above all others, including John the Baptist. In this regard, he does not include the birth of John, he has nothing about the suffering of John, and shortens the John material to give the reader less of it as to emphasize Jesus. Matthew shortens Mark’s stories (sanitizes Mark) and keeps Q’s teachings pretty much the same. He shortens, edits, eliminates problems, and explains an conflict that would make Jesus appear less.



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Essays on John the Baptist: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? (6)

In this new six part series I present responses to essays offered in my course at UNC Charlotte on “John the Baptist.” John is the most underrated figure in Christian tradition, rarely given his due as a messiah and inaugurator of the movement Jesus himself arose from. The responses are by my student, Jeff Poplin, now a USAF Lt Colonel, fighter pilot, married with two boys. Jeff wrote them without notes in response to exams given in the course! They offer a good, concise, and rather extraordinary summary of what we covered in the course:

From an historical-critical point of view, what do we know about John the Baptist and how do we know it? Given the plethora of ancient sources, both independent and secondary, what appear to be the “indisputable” facts about John the Baptist, his life, career, mission, practices, and teachings. Show how our various sources can be critically examined to sift through redundant, contradictory, or even superfluous materials to arrive at something reasonably “settled” from an historical point of view. From your point of view do you find the approach of the “Jesus Seminar” as reflected by Tatum to be validated or questioned in terms of historical methodology, and why? Some of the major sources you should consider are: Q, Mark, Luke-Acts, Matthew, Thomas, Josephus (Greek and Slavonic), Pseudo-Clementines, Shem-Tov Matthew, later Gospels (Ebionite, Nazoreans, and Hebrews in quoted fragments, Infancy Gospel of James), and Mandean traditions…

Throughout the course of this semester we have examined biblical, independent, and secondary sources relating to John the Baptist and the world surrounding him during the early first century of the Common Era. Each ancient source contributes its own distinct view and piece of the historical puzzle of recreating the life, mission, and teachings of John. As the end of the course is near, we now need to look back from a historical-critical point of view to see what can be known about John the Baptist and how we know it. Some of these major sources include Q, Mark, Matthew, Thomas, Josephus, Pseudo-Clementines, Infancy Gospel of James, Shem-Tov Matthew, and later gospels of the Ebionites, Nazoreans, and Hebrews. Each one presents its own unique depiction of John and events surrounding his life and will be examined closely. Starting with biblical material, the Lukan version of Q should be examined first. In 7:24-26, Jesus is speaking to a crowd of people concerning John and asking what it is they went out to the wilderness to see? He asks the same question three times and finally says John is “more that a prophet.” Jesus also tells the crowd in 7:28 that “among those born of women none is greater that John.” From Q, it is learned John “came eating no bread and drinking no wine.” In 16:16, it states “The law and prophets were until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed.” A possible original teaching by John the Baptist may be found in 16:18 (although not formally considered part of Q) and it reads, “anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” Finally, from Q scholars are presented with a prayer, by Jesus, which John taught his disciples – “Father, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come. Give us each our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation.”

John & Jesus

 

Mark also presents various traditions on John the Baptist. From Mark, one learns John appears and is baptizing in the wilderness (1:4). An important commentary on John’s clothes is contained in 1:6 where it describes garments of “camel’s hair with a leather girdle around his waist.” It goes on to state he ate locusts and wild honey. Scholars are also able to retrieve from Mark traditions of his baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river, Herod’s arrest and execution of John because of Herodias, and that John’s disciples fast while those of Jesus do not (2:18).

Matthew too contains biblical material concerning John. Here is found references to John’s clothing of camel hair and a leather girdle and to his dietary habits of eating locusts and wild honey. John’s baptism is explained as a baptism of repentance (3:11) and that he baptizes Jesus (3:13). Found in 11:9-12, Jesus is addressing a crowd, telling them John is indeed more than a prophet, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John, and the law and prophets were until John. Matthew also portrays John coming neither eating nor drinking (11:18). From Matthew, one learns of John’s arrest (14:3), his objection to Herod’s adultery (14:4), and his death at the request of Herodias (14:5-13). Finally, in 17:12, Jesus is speaking with the inner three concerning Elijah’s coming and says “Elijah has already come,” referring to John.

The last biblical material on John comes from Luke-Acts. From this material it is known that John is six months older that Jesus and their mothers (Mary and Elizabeth) are related, cousins perhaps. In Luke 1:80 it is revealed John grew up in the wilderness from childhood and remained there “until the day of his manifestation to Israel.” Luke 1:15 explains John as being given a Nazirite vow (while still a child) and as a requirement of that vow “he shall drink no wine or strong drink.” John’s baptism is for repentance and appears to be the only one taught in Alexandria and known to Apollos until his meeting with Paul (Acts 18:24-19:1).

Knowledge of John and his role in the early “Christian” movement would not be possible by a study of biblical material alone. Continuing the search, we find a wealth of independent and secondary sources that contain numerous references to John the Baptist. First on this list is the Gospel of Thomas, which like Q is a sayings gospel containing 114 sayings of Jesus. It was discovered in 1945 near Nag Hammadi, Egypt where it is believed they remained buried since the 4th century. Only one in the entire gospel explicitly reefers to John. In 46:1-2 it reads, “Jesus said ‘From Adam to John the Baptist, among those born of women, no one is so much greater than John the Baptist that his eyes should not be averted’.” Thomas 52:1-2 is not specifically about John the Baptist, yet may be read as referring to him indirectly. It states, “his disciples said to him (Jesus) ‘Twenty-four prophets have spoken in Israel and they all spoke of you.’ He said to them ‘you have disregarded the living one who is in your presence, and have spoken of the dead’.”

Next comes the respected Jewish historian Josephus. There are two copies of his work: one Greek and the other Slavonic, each adding information to this evolving story. First, in the Greek version we find a reference to John in Antiquities of the Jews – written in the 90’s while Domitian is in power. This work is a little more liberal with information than the earlier Jewish War and as such might be the reason John is mentioned. King Herod’s army had a battle with the neighboring King Aretas and Herod suffered a military defeat. Josephus records that some of the Jews thought the destruction of Herod’s army came from God as a punishment of what he did against John. Herod feared John’s influence over the people and as a result had John sent out to Macherus where he was eventually beheaded.

Recorded in the Slavonic version of Josephus we find that John would not allow wine or intoxicating drink anywhere near him. Also, that his lips “knew no bread,” so much so that he did not even eat the unleavened bread traditional at the Passover feast. It is recorded John put animal’s hair upon his body wherever it was not covered by his own hair. John dipped or cleansed the people who came to him in the waters of the Jordan. Slavonic Josephus also records that John ate only natural things: locusts and wild honey.

The group of writings known as the Pseudo-Clementines claim to be the work of Clement (of Rome). Possibly written in the early 3rd century, the works, valuable for our purposes, record a discussion between Peter and Clement regarding Jewish sects and the disciples of John the Baptist. The first of two references records in 1.54.8, “Now the pure disciples of John separated themselves greatly from the people and spoke to their teacher as if he were concealed.” Could this be an early reference to the Mandeans? The second reference comes from 1.60.1-4 where the disciples of John are talking with the disciples of Jesus and saying, “He (John) is the Christ and not Jesus…just as Jesus spoke concerning him, namely that he is greater that any prophet who had ever been.” They also say John is greater than Moses and Jesus and therefore he is the Christ.

Another interesting source to be considered is Shem-Tov’s Hebrew Matthew. Written in the 14th century, a treaties written by Shem-Tov contains a Hebrew version of the complete text of Matthew. It contains several differences from the Greek copy of Matthew regarding John the Baptist. In 11:11 Jesus says, “among all those born of women none has risen greater than John the Baptist.” Shem-Tov’s version ends the sentence here without adding the phrase concerning those least in the kingdom being greater than he. Recorded in 11:13 it states, “For all the prophets and the law spoke concerning John” unlike the Greek version’s “law prophesied until John.” There exist other early Christian literature classified as “gospels” which need to be examined in addition to the earlier gospels (Q, Mark, Matthew, Luke-Acts, and Thomas). These later gospels were probably written during the 2nd century C.E. and appear to be somewhat dependent (literally) upon the earlier Gospels. The first of these is the Gospel of the Ebionites. Epiphanius quotes passages of the Gospel of the Ebionites (sect of Greek speaking Jewish-Christians) in his work Heresies and is the reason scholars are able to have the three fragments concerning John today. In 30.13.6, the reader is made aware that John was baptizing for repentance in the Jordan River during the days of King Herod of Judea. The names of John’s parents are mentioned here as being Zechariah (a priest) and Elizabeth. The next fragment, 30.13-4-5, records John wearing a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist and that he are wild honey and manna with oil (not locusts as in other writings). In the third and final fragment, 30.13.7-8, Jesus comes and is baptized by John. Next is the Gospel of the Nazoreans, which was probably written for Jewish-Christians, and scholars have a fragment of this work as recorded by Jerome in his work Against Pelagius. It is recorded that “John the Baptist baptized for the remission of sins” and he baptized Jesus (3.2). Jerome also records, in his Commentary of Isaiah, a quote from the Gospel of the Hebrews. Though John the Baptist is not specifically referenced, Jesus’ baptism is and that event is generally held that John is the one who performed the duty. The Gospel of the Hebrews has the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus as he emerges from the water as if he were the perfect human (human to Divine: late called “Adoptionism”). Last of these later gospels is the Infancy Gospel of James of Protoevangelium of James, which claims to have been written by Jesus’ brother James. This was probably done so to give the work some creditability because James was the leader of the Jerusalem Church after the death of Jesus, although he is doubted as having actually written it himself. Two passages in this work deal directly with John the Baptist. In the first, 22:5-9, the name of John’s mother is given as Elizabeth and it tells of how she hid John from Herod as he was slaughtering infants (for fear he too would be killed). In the second passage, 23:1-9, John’s father’s name is recorded as Zechariah and it is told Herod had Zechariah killed for not revealing where his son had been hidden.

Taking a step back for a moment, we can now see the magnitude John plays in the history of the early “Christian” movement. An examination of the references to him, accompanied by their respective authors has just been presented. However, a question must be posed at this stage, what does this all mean? Armed with this knowledge, what can we say about John (what are the facts, how do we know them, and in what way are they presented)? Looking individually at the major source materials with a critical bye makes any reader question the accuracy of any one account, yet taken as a whole, the materials, texts, and traditions all push certain motifs and facts surrounding the life of John the Baptist. Although each text, source material, of tradition presents its own version of the occurrences surrounding John, we are able to extract the core meaning from such sources and can confirm their validity by cross-checking these with other known reliable sources. Certain aspects about John, his life, career, mission, practices, and teachings are held to be “true” with reasonable certainty, indisputable if you will. Scholars know the John was born in Israel to a mother and father named Zechariah and Elizabeth. He is living in the wilderness for most of his life. John is baptizing people who come to him in the Jordan River for the remission of sins/repentance. Jesus came and received his baptism from John in the Jordan River. John’s clothes consisted of a garment made of animal’s hair, most likely camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist and his diet consisted of wild honey and something else (manna or locusts/ekris or akris). We know that John came neither eating bread nor drinking wine (or intoxicating drink). It is also known that John objected to Herod’s taking of Philip’s wife and viewed it as an act of adultery. In reaction, Herod had John arrested and imprisoned (most conceivably at the desert fortress Macherus) and eventually ordered John beheaded. Scholars know John the Baptist was held in high regard by the people of Israel during his time and thereafter evident by the large numbers of people flocking to him in the wilderness, by John having disciples of his own, and by Jesus himself claiming that “among those born of women none has risen greater that John the Baptist.” John taught repentance and baptism as preparation for the time of God which was near. He accepted sinners into his ministry, taught that people should care for the poor, and spread the word of the coming kingdom of God. John taught devotion to God and rejection of world as displayed by his clothing, diet, and wilderness lifestyle. John also had devoted followers/disciples who viewed him as the Christ after his death and survive today as modern-day Mandeans living mostly in Iraq and Iran. It is only through the consolidation and consideration of all ancient sources: New Testament, Gnostic scriptures, traditions, church historians, independent and secondary materials (complementary and contradictory) that scholars can discover the original, historically accurate picture of John as a member, believer, and righteous leader of the early “Christian”/baptismal movement. Looking at the approach taken by the Jesus Seminar, it could be argued that their methods are questionable in terms of historical methodology. The Jesus Seminar claims to have considered all the available historical evidence related to John the Baptist and Tatum’s book is a summary of the seminars deliberations and votes to bring readers a concise sketch of the historical figure of John the Baptist. Their inclusion of Josephus, Pseudo-Clementines, and other early Christian gospels is commendable, yet their assessment and interpretation of such sources in constructing a historically accurate portrait of John may be suspect. It would appear the members of the Jesus Seminar have an underlying motive or agenda in their deliberations and votes. They appear to accept very little as “true” facts (i.e. there was a person named Jesus – 96% agree, John baptized Jesus – 91% agree, etc.). What the Jesus Seminar agrees on as fact (not much apparently) comes almost exclusively from the New Testament. Instances in which material is sketchy or comes from independent and secondary sources, the Jesus Seminar exclude it as fiction. Examples include John and Jesus being related – 5% agree, Mary and Elizabeth are related – 3% agree, Herodias’ daughter asked for John’s head of a platter – 24% agree. The Jesus Seminar’s approach quite possibly began with good and noble intentions but the methods they employed and the results of their study are flawed in terms of historical methodology.



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 Josephus on John the Baptizer, Jesus, and James

The 1st century CE Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus, known today as Josephus, was born Yosef ben Matityahu /יוסף בן מתתיהו in the year 37 CE. He began his career as commander of the Jewish forces in the Galilee in the 1st Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66CE, subsequently surrendered to the Roman general Vespasian, and ended up living out his days in Rome as a patron of the new emperor and his sons Titus and Domitian. His three major works are The Jewish War (c. 75 CE), Antiquities of the Jews (94 CE), and Against Apion (97 CE), which is a defense of Judaism against Greek criticisms. He also wrote a short biography called Life of Flavius Josephus toward the end of his life. He died around the year 100 CE. He is unquestionably our most valuable historical source for students of ancient Judaism and emerging Christianity for the period. I tell my students who are interested in Christian Origins–first and foremost, read Josephus!1

Of special interest to students of Christian origins are the short but invaluable descriptions Josephus gives us of John the Baptizer, Jesus, and James, the brother of Jesus. These three figures, all brutally murdered by the political and religious establishment, just happen to be the founding figures of what scholars call “the Jesus movement.” And yet, properly understood in its historical contexts, this Messianic movement is broader than Jesus, beginning with John the Baptist, and advancing significantly under the leadership of Jesus’ successor, his brother James.2 It is noteworthy that in Josephus’s earlier work, The Jewish War, John, Jesus, or James go completely unmentioned. It is only decades later, in the 90s CE, when Josephus comes to write the Antiquities, that he includes this material. My own guess is that he is well aware that the emperor Vespasian, following the heat of the War in Judea, is very keen to suppress any movement that might be deemed “Messianic,” and particularly one built around the expectations of a Davidic ruler as rightful king of the Jews. Josephus is surely aware of the Nazarene movement, but he is not inclined to expose them to imperial scrutiny, and perhaps he even wants to shield them in that regard.

What he says about John the Baptizer and James the brother of Jesus, is truly precious material, coming as it does from an “outsider” with no Christian theological agenda. Josephus, of course, has his own multiple and tendentious purposes, but supporting any particular side of controversies about the place and role of John or James in the movement is not on his radar screen. I encourage readers to study carefully every line of these valuable passages. Notice in particular, Herod Antipas who has John killed was most concerned over John’s great influence over the populace and its potential for sparking a full scale revolt against Roman rule. He is also familiar with John’s rites of ritual immersion in water (“baptism”) as a sign of one repenting of sins and turning toward righteousness. James, likewise, has the favor of the people and his murdered by the High Priest Ananus, whom Josephus considers to be an insolent and arrogant ruler. For a full discussion of these passages, their subsequent history, and lots of bibliography, see here.

His “testimony” to Jesus is more problematic since it has been so heavily interpolated by medieval Christian copyists. However, we are more than fortunate that these pious scribes had such heavy hands, since their additions appear to be so blatant and obvious, in both placement and phrasing. Scholars have worked on this text quite extensively and I recommend the summary discussion by John Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (Doubleday, 1991), Vol I, pp. 57-88.

Taking the passage and striking through the obvious interpolations we end up with the following results:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonders, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew many after him both of the Jews and the Gentiles. He was the Christ. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things about him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day (Antiquities 18:63-64).

This bare and minimal account I find quite instructive. If one reads it again, without the additions, we have:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of wonders. He drew many after him. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day (Antiquities 18:63-64).

The content of this short report is strikingly close to what critical historians would distill as a kind of bare minimum regarding the historical Jesus–a wise teacher and wonder-worker who ran into opposition from the religious and political authorities and was crucified, but whose movement continued after his death. That Josephus does not mention anything about Jesus being resurrected was what obviously most troubled the medieval Christian copyists.

Robert Eisler’s discussion of this controversial passage, an excerpt of which one can find here with helpful notes by Steve Mason, goes much further than removing these obvious Christian theological interpolations. Eisler suggests restoring certain deletions that he is convinced were once in the original, hence he comes up with the following:

Now about this time arose an occasion for new disturbances, a certain Jesus, a wizard of a man, if indeed he may be called a man who was the most monstrous of all men, whom his disciples call a son of God, as having done wonders such as no man hath ever yet done…He was in fact a teacher of astonishing tricks to such men as accept the abnormal with delight….And he seduced many also of the Greek nation and was regarded by them as the Messiah…And when, on the indictment of the principal men among us, Pilate had sentenced him to the cross, still those who before had admired him did not cease to rave. For it seemed to them that having been dead for three days, he had appeared to them alive again, as the divinely-inspired prophets had foretold — these and ten thousand other wonderful things — concerning him. And even now the race of those who are called “Messianists” after him is not extinct.

Steve Mason suggests, and I have to agree, that inserting deletions is infinitely more susceptible to speculation than removing obvious interpolative additions. Although Eisler provides his justification for this reconstruction it remains, so far as I can see, quite questionable.

Some years ago Professor Shlomo Pines found a different version of this passage in an Arabic version of Josephus dating to the tenth century CE.3 It has obviously not been interpolated in the same way as the Christian version circulating in the West and it reads remarkably close to our “non-interpolated” version above:

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon their loyalty to him. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive. Accordingly they believed that he was the Messiah, concerning whom the Prophets have recounted wonders.

In my 2006 book, The Jesus Dynasty, I argue that the followers of John the Baptist, Jesus, and James the brother of Jesus, in contrast to those influenced by Paul, shaped their post-crucifixion hopes and future expectations on a decidedly apocalyptic Messianic vision that focused on the arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth and the fulfillment of the promises of the Hebrew Prophets (Isaiah 2:2-4; Zechariah 14; Isaiah 11; Micah 5:2-4; Jeremiah 30-31). Not surprisingly, what Josephus tells us about John the Baptizer, Jesus, and James fits hand-in-glove with what we understand from the Dead Sea Scrolls and other contemporary late 2nd Temple Jewish sources about the 1st century CE “messianic movement in Palestine,” as Robert Eisenman so aptly called it.


  1. His complete works are readily available in print and on-line in the archaic 18th translation by the remarkable mathematician and theologian William Whiston (1667-1752), as well as the Loeb Classical Library multi-volume editions with Greek text and facing English translation by H. St. John Thackeray. There is a Penguin paperback edition of The Jewish War translated by E. Mary Smallwood and a condensation, Josephus: The Essential Works by Paul Maier. The masterful guide to Josephus is by my teacher, Louis H. Feldman, Josephus, Judaism, and Christianity, which every serious student should have. Steve Mason is editing The PACE Josephus Project, an ongoing effort to produce new editions of all his works, see here for information, updates, and lots more fascinating information on Josephus. 

  2. Here see the pioneering work of Robert Eisler, Jesus the Messiah and John the Baptist and most recently, Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus. Eisler, whose 1929 German edition was translated into English is long out of print but it can be found in most libraries and is available in a photocopy edition, see more here

  3. Shlomo Pines, An Arabic version of the Testimonium Flavianum and its implications. Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1971. 



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