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John the Baptist:
Preparing the Way

by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, O.P.

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 versa.

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 winter rains.

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 inextricably linked.

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 (1QS 4:20-21).

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 (Jeremiah 36:5-6).

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 3:22-24).

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 it.

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" (Matthew 11:11b).

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— " (Matthew 11:18-19).

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.

Jerome Murphy-O—Connor is a Dominican priest and teaches at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem. He is the author of several books, including a definitive study of Paul.

Next: The Synoptic Gospels (by Steve Mueller)



Praying With Scripture  

There is a saying: "If you want to make God laugh, make plans." Read Luke 1:8-24 and 1:57-80, the announcement and birth of John the Baptist. The greatest things that happen to us are often those that are unplanned. Pray for an openness to what God has in store for you and the grace to respond well to what God puts in your way.



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