Around 150 B.C., when the Teacher of Righteousness
led a group of Essenes out into the desert to establish a settlement
at Qumran, he believed that he was fulfilling the prophecy of
Isaiah, "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make
straight in the desert a highway for our God" (40:3).
When Mark wrote his Gospel over a hundred years
later he saw the same prophecy fulfilled in the ministry of
John the Baptist (1:2). From the place where John proclaimed
a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins he could
see down to the southwest the fortress-like Essene building
on the shore of the Dead Sea. As the crow flies, it was only
10 miles away.
Scholars had assumed that this nearness implied
a relationship. This appeared to be justified on the grounds
that John and the Essenes shared similar views, a commitment
to asceticism, similar eschatological visions and a belief in
the importance of bathing in water. Some scholars suggested
that John had been adopted by the Essenes as a child or that
he had joined the sect at a later stage.
However, as the analogies were subjected to more
careful scrutiny, it became clear that what was specific to
John was not found in the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran and vice
An Unsuitable Place to Minister
This forces us to ask why John began his ministry
so close to Qumran and in an area that was unsuitable on many
counts. In the first century no one lived and nothing grew on
the lower east bank of the Jordan.
The immediate vicinity of the Jordan River has
not changed in 2,000 years. The steep banks are lined with trees
that grow closely together.
Some of the great masses of reeds rise to a height
of 15 feet.
The dense undergrowth harbors the deadly Palestinian
viper and the vicious wild boar.
The fords (2 Samuel 15:28; 17:16) move, and they
become unusable when the level of the river rises during the
A more inappropriate place for mass baptisms would
be difficult to imagine (Jeremiah 12:5).
Nonetheless the area offered anyone claiming to
be a prophet one inestimable advantage. It was the place from
which the great prophet Elijah had been swept up to heaven in
a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2:4:11).
By wearing a camel-hair garment girded with a
leather belt (Mark 1:6) in precisely the place where Elijah
had disappeared, John intended those who saw him to think of
him in terms of Elijah, who was "a hairy man with a leather
belt around his waist" (2 Kings 1:8; cf. 2:8).
This was a prophetic gesture, whose precise significance
is debated by scholars. There can be little doubt, however,
that the word of a new Elijah spread like wildfire.
Despite this brilliant PR move to draw attention
to the message of an unknown, it is most unlikely that "all
the country of Judea and all the people of Jerusalem" (Mark
1:5) rushed down to the Jordan to hear John.
The obligation to rest on the Sabbath created
severe financial problems for Jews, and no one could afford
to take the three-day vacation that a visit to John demanded;
it is a day—s walk from Jerusalem to the Jordan.
The only time he would have had an audience was
when wealthy Jerusalemites with their families, servants and
hangers-on came down to their winter homes in Jericho.
An Alienated Priest
Before discussing John—s message, it is important
to know something about his background, because the two are
Both his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, were
of priestly stock (Luke 1:5). They lived in an unnamed village
in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39). This provides an immediate
hint of their social status.
According to ancient sources, there were some
7000 priests, and the tithes for their support were barely adequate.
The lion—s share went to the high priestly families in Jerusalem,
who gradually usurped the rights of the lower clergy by force,
to the point where some priests died of starvation (Josephus,
Jewish Antiquities 20:181, 206).
John, therefore, belonged to an alienated group
characterized by a burning sense of grievance. Sometime in his
early 30s John could contain himself no longer, and spoke out
publicly against the injustices perpetrated by the wealthy and
powerful aristocracy of Jerusalem, "You brood of vipers! Who
warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that benefits
repentance" (Matthew 3:7-8).
He invited them to accept baptism as a sign of
their sincerity. To those who did so he offered ethical instruction
as to how they might renew their lives (Luke 3:10-14).
John was aware that those who repented could fall
back into sin. Thus he saw his mission as only preliminary.
He could not do all that needed to be done. To those who had
repented and accepted his baptism he said that in the future
there would come someone who would baptize, not with water,
but with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Mark 1:7-8).
The identity of this personage was not John—s
concern. His attention was focused on the contrast between the
two baptisms. Since the saying was addressed to the repentant,
the Holy Spirit and fire cannot connote judgment and destruction.
Fire is an instrument of purification in Malachi 3:1-3 and 1
Corinthians 3:13, as is the Holy Spirit in the Qumran writings
Clearly, John was thinking of a radical transformation
of the person along the lines of one of his predecessors, "I
shall pour clean water over you.... I shall give you a new heart,
and put a new spirit in you.... I shall put my spirit in you,
and make you keep my laws" (Ezekiel 36:25-26; cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34).
There is no way of calculating how long John had
been preaching before Jesus came for baptism (Mark 1:9). One
has only to read the parallel accounts in Matthew and Mark to
realize how embarrassed the early Church was by this gesture,
whose meaning for Jesus escapes us.
The immediate consequence was that Jesus did not
return to Galilee (cf. Mark 1:14). He stayed with John, who
groomed him for the role that Elisha had fulfilled with respect
to Elijah (1 Kings 19:19-21), and Baruch with respect to Jeremiah
This was in preparation for a foray across the
river Jordan, which is recorded in the Fourth Gospel, "Jesus
and his disciples went into the land of Judea. There he remained
with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon
near Salim, because there was much water there, and people came
and were baptized. For John had not yet been put in prison"
John—s Ministry in Samaria and Galilee
John, as the leader, took the more difficult
task. Aenon near Salim is on the east slope of Mt. Gerizim in
the very center of the territory of the Samaritans, whose detestation
of Jews was fully reciprocated.
The whole point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan
in Luke 10:30-37 is to force Jews to admit that a Samaritan
could be good. Inevitably John—s baptizing mission in Samaria
was much less successful than Jesus— parallel mission in Judea
(John 3:28; 4:1). How much time John gave it before deciding
to cut his losses cannot be estimated.
It is often assumed that John then returned to
Peraea, where he had begun his ministry, but this is most unlikely.
North of Samaria lay Galilee with a large Jewish population
that needed his preaching.
As he had once condemned the wealthy aristocracy
in Jerusalem, in Galilee he targeted the king (Mark 6:17-18).
Herod Antipas had repudiated his wife, the daughter of Aretas
IV king of the Nabataeans, in order to marry his niece Herodias,
the wife of his half-brother Herod (not Philip, as Mark says).
John—s denunciation of this sinful marriage (Leviticus
18:16; 20:21) came at a very awkward moment for the king. The
daughter of Aretas had managed to escape and reach her father
in Petra. That powerful monarch was not prepared to accept the
insult offered his family, and began to mass troops for an attack
on Antipas. In order to prepare his defenses Herod moved south
to the great frontier castle of Machaerus on the east side of
the Dead Sea.
John loose in Galilee would have been a dagger
at his back. In a Jewish kingdom religious criticism carried
political implications. John—s words could alienate the constituency
of Antipas just when he needed all the support he could get.
Hence he arrested John and transferred him to Machaerus.
John—s transparent holiness saved him for a while
from the murderous hostility of Herodias (Mark 6:20).
Her chance came on the occasion of the birthday
of Antipas. The magnificent dining room in which the banquet
took place has been excavated. There the dance of Herodias—
daughter so pleased the drunken king that he offered her whatever
she desired. Her mother ensconced in the smaller dining room
nearby (also excavated) persuaded her to ask for the head of
John the Baptist (Mark 6:21-29). The king reluctantly consented.
According to Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 18:116), Herod—s defeat
by Aretas was the divine punishment for this crime.
Jesus in Galilee
After Jesus got word that John had been arrested,
he gave up his baptizing ministry in Judea, and went to Galilee
to take John—s place (Mark 1:14). Inevitably, since he preached
and baptized exactly as John had done, the king and the crowds
thought that he was John risen from the dead (Mark 6:14-16).
A feature of the preaching of Jesus that has
gone largely unrecognized is the praise that Jesus lavishes
on John. The evangelists had to record it because it was part
of the tradition, but where possible they attempted to neutralize
Jesus, for example, said, "Amen I say to you,
among those born of women there has risen no one greater than
John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:11a), but an editor added "yet
he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he"
Similarly Jesus said that John "was a burning
and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while
in his light," but in its present context this compliment is
immediately followed by, "But the testimony which I have is
greater than that of John" (John 5:35-36).
Elsewhere the ministry of John is presented in
unmistakably positive terms: "John came to you in the way of
righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors
and the harlots believed him; and, even when you saw it, you
did not afterward repent and believe him" (Matthew 21:32). A
later editor would have found it difficult to weaken this report.
Finally, Jesus sets in parallel criticisms of
himself and of John, "John came neither eating nor drinking
and they say, —He had a demon.— The son of Man came eating and
drinking, and they say, —Behold a glutton and a drunkard— "
The cumulative effect of these passages is extraordinary.
Jesus speaks of John in a way similar to the early Church—s
confession of Jesus. Clearly Jesus felt that John was a figure
of key importance in his religious development. They must have
spent a number of years together.
Had Jesus not insisted on the significance of
John the Baptist, the latter would have been banished from the
Gospel tradition as an extreme embarrassment. Instead, we honor
him as the forerunner of the Messiah.
Next: The Synoptic Gospels (by Steve Mueller)