Jesus and John the Baptist
We know that John the Baptist was a historical figure. Our interest is in his relationship with Jesus. Christian theology asserts that John was the forerunner of Jesus. Yet there are problems with this:
John the Baptist
All the synoptics agree that the event that initiated Jesusí ministry was his baptism in the River Jordan by a man known as John the Baptist. Mark's description about John is given below:
Mark 1:4-6 |
John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. And John was clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;
Prophets like John were not an uncommon sight in first century Palestine. Josephus, in his Autobiography related how he spent three years with the hermit Bannos. To this hermit, purity means living entirely on plant products. For all his clothing and food came only from trees.  These religious fanatics, like Bannos and John, all went out into the wilderness. Even John's mode of dressing is the standard Hebrew prophetic attire. We are told in II Kings that the prophet Elijah wore almost the same attire:
II Kings 1:8 |
And they answered him, He was an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins.
As for eating locusts, this was not considered an abomination to the Jews as the passage from Leviticus below shows:
Leviticus 11:22 |
Of them you may eat: the locust according to its kind, the bald locust according to its kind, the cricket according to its kind, and the grasshopper according to its kind.
There is thus nothing peculiar about the person of John the Baptist. He was clearly a product of the social environment of contemporary Palestine and was by no means the only prophet running around preaching about the need for repentance.  Apart from the fifteen references [a] to John the Baptist in the gospels, there is also independent corroboration from Josephusí Antiquities of the Jews (18:5:2). Therefore the historical existence of John the Baptist is not an issue. In any case, that is not where our interest lie.
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Mark's Account of Jesus' Baptism
Our interest in John the Baptist stems from the connection the gospels made between him and Jesus. John, to the gospels, was the forerunner who prepared the way for Jesus. This is how Mark describes Johnís message:
Mark 1:7-8 |
And he preached, saying, "After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
It was during one Johnís baptismal sessions that Jesus came along and had himself baptised by John.
Mark 1:9-11 |
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
A few things are worthy of note here. First there is no indication that John recognized Jesus as the messiah or the "one who is more powerful" than he (Mark 1:7) Further, note that the vision described was clearly a personal experience of Jesus: he was baptized, saw heaven opened and heard the voice of God which was addressed to him (ďYou are my son...Ē). There is no suggestion whatsoever in the passage that anyone else saw heaven opened and dove descent from it or heard the voice from heaven. Many mystics have experienced similar or even more spectacular visions. The Markan account is simple, straightforward and historically plausible.
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How the other Gospels Changed the Story in Mark
But the theological difficulty in the above account was noticed by the other evangelists, who wrote their gospels later. John specifically taught that his baptism was for the cleansing of one's sins (Mark 1:5, Luke 3:3) and if Jesus went through the same baptismal rite it clearly implied that he had sinned. Furthermore, accepting the baptism in the way Mark described it also seemed to reduce the status of Jesus to below that of John. As Christianity evolved, the figure of Jesus began to take on a supra-human status. It was believe\d that Jesus couldnít possibly have sinned and he certainly was not in any way inferior to John the Baptist. Let us look at how Matthew accommodated the account of the baptism in Mark to fit in with the evolving doctrine concerning Jesus.
Matthew 3:13-17 |
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
I have italicized the portion which Matthew had added to the Markan account. John is here made to recognize Jesus instantly and tried to deter Jesus from being baptized. John's testimony to Jesus clearly showed the inferior status of the former. Jesus' reply made the baptism a purely ceremonial one. Thus in one fell swoop the two theological problems apparent in the Markan account is eliminated in Matthew's. Note also that the personal vision of Jesus has been changed here to a more public proclamation; the personal ďYou are my son...Ē of Mark has been changed by Matthew to the public ďThis is my sonĒ.
Although Luke (3:21-22) followed Markís account of the baptism, he also made adjustments to his gospel to ensure that Johnís inferior status is made explicit. This adjustment was made in the nativity story of Jesus where the baby John, still in his motherís womb, leapt for joy, when Mary, pregnant with Jesus, greeted Elizabeth (Luke 1:41-44).
In the fourth gospel the theological evolution had progressed even further:
John 1:29-36 |
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, `After me comes a man who ranks before me, for he was before me.' I myself did not know him; but for this I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel."
And John bore witness, "I saw the Spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him; but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, `He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God." The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples; and he looked at Jesus as he walked, and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God!"
Note that in the gospel of John the story of Jesus' baptism is completely omitted. And John the Baptist is now made to immediately and openly acknowledge the status of Jesus. And the vision of the dove, which in Mark is given as a purely personal experience of Jesus, is in John given as the experience of John the Baptist. 
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The Contradiction by Q
These theological alterations by Matthew and Luke and John are contradicted by a passage from Q. This passage which was, probably inadvertently, included by both Matthew and Luke in their gospels, is placed after the arrest of John by Herod Antipas. (John was executed by Herod not long after this imprisonment.)
Matthew 11:2-3 (Luke 7:18-20)|
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?"
The passage above shows that John only heard about Jesus after he was imprisoned. He was not sure who Jesus was and actually sent his disciples to asked Jesus if he was "the one who was to come." The contradiction in this passage to the theological alterations of Matthew, Luke and John is glaringly obvious. Why would the John who tried to stop Jesus from being baptized by him (according to Matthew) or who leapt in his motherís womb upon receiving Maryís greetings (according to Luke) or who publicly proclaimed Jesus "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (according to John) now fail to recognize who he was? 
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John's Disciples After His Death
There is a further problem to the gospelsí story about Johnís role. If he was to be the forerunner of Jesus, someone who prepares the way for the Lord (Mark 1:2); his mission would have been complete the moment Jesus steps into the scene. One would expect Johnís movement to be obsoleted and his followers would disband or follow Jesus.
Yet this was obviously not the case. The passage above also showed that John kept his disciples to the end of his life. [b] Even after the death of John, his disciples continued to be a separate and distinct group from the followers of Jesus. Acts 19:1-7 narrates the story of Paul meeting some followers of John in Ephesus, a quarter of a century after the death of John and Jesus. These followers had not even heard of Jesus or the Holy Spirit. The followers of John, which eventually became known as the Mandeans, persisted until the second century. They were often locked in theological conflict with the early Christians-as the polemics of the early Christians testify. We also find that the while the passage in Antiquities mentioned Johnís preaching of repentance and practice of baptism, it makes no mentioned of him being a forerunner to another. 
John, who was called the Baptist;...who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness toward one another, and piety toward God, and so to come to baptism, for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away of some sins, but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was purified beforehand by righteousness. 
The balance of evidence therefore, is in favour of the hypothesis that John never preached about he being a forerunner to Jesus.
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Why the Markan Account Too is Fictional
The considerations above show conclusively that the accounts of Jesus' meeting with John the Baptist, as presented in Matthew and John, are fictional. Lukeís nativity account, too, must be consigned to the category of myths. This leaves us with the basic Markan account. The story of the baptism, as told in Mark, sounds plausible-Jesus could well have been one of the many who were baptised incognito by John. Further, the believers argue that the story of the baptism saddles early Christian theology with two problems: it seems to imply that Jesus was not sinless (since he needed to be baptised) and that he was subordinated to John. Had the story been untrue or suspect, the evangelist would surely be glad not to include it in the gospel. Thus, so the argument continues, it must have been locked in a very early strata of Christian tradition and could not be ignored by the evangelists. 
There are however arguments that could be made for the opposite viewpoint: that the basic story of the baptism itself is unhistorical.
- First we note that passages from Luke and Matthew generally recognized to be from Q did not mention any meeting of Jesus with John. The passages in Q concerning John the Baptist refers to his preaching of repentance (Luke 3:7-9; Matthew 3:7-10) and his questioning of Jesus during his imprisonment (Luke 7:18-20; Matthew 11:2-3). In fact, the passages in Q are internally consistent, for we would expect John, if he had heard about Jesus for the first time after his imprisonment, would send his disciples to clarify the latterís status. 
- Second, we find that Paul in his epistles never once mentioned John the Baptist in connection with Jesusí mission. 
- Thirdly, there is the Jewish belief that the chosen one will not be aware that he is the messiah until he is anointed by his forerunner. 
- Finally there is that argument from the sociology of religion: the easiest way for a new religion (or religious group) to relinquish and supplant the old would be to incorporate elements of the latter into it. This was what happened when the Christians incorporated the pagan celebrations during the winter solstice and transformed it into Christmas. This was also what happened to the Kaaba, an old shrine of Arabian paganism which Muhammad transformed into the holiest site of Islam. Thus the best way for the early Christians to fight the Mandeans was to assert that Johnís work was simply a preparation for Jesus. This would be done by describing Johnís mission as being essentially finished once Jesusí was baptised (i.e. once the messiah has been anointed by the forerunner). We see this in Mark, which puts the imprisonment of John almost immediately after Jesus was baptised (Mark 1:14).  The so-called theologically embarrassing idea of having Jesus submit to baptism by John may not have been one to Mark, if Mark believe Jesus to be no more than a human messiah.
On balance, the evidence show that whole story of Johnís baptism of Jesus is not historical.
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|a.||The fifteen references are found in Mark 1:2-11,14; 2:18; 6:14-29; 9:30-33 Matthew 3:7-17;11:2-19 Luke 1; 3:7-17; 7:18-27;7:31-35; 16:16 John 1:19-42; 3:22-36; 4:1-3
|b.||Mark 6:29 mentioned that John was buried by his disciples after his execution by Herod Antipas.
|1.||Guignebert, Jesus: p152|
|3.||Cadoux, The Life of Jesus: p44-45|
Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p131
Nineham, Saint Mark: p61
Schonfield, The Passover Plot: p67-68
|4.||Caird, Saint Luke: p111|
Fenton, Saint Matthew, p175
|5.||Asimov, Guide to the Bible: p1071|
Caird, Saint Luke: p111
Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p88
Hoffman, The Origins of Christianity: p255-256
Wells, Did Jesus Exists?: p152
Wilson, Jesus: A Life: p102
|6.||quoted in Hoffman, The Origins of Christianity: p255|
|7.||Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p87|
Guignebert, Jesus: p157
|8.||Mack, The Lost Gospel: p155
|9.||Wells, The Historical Evidence for Jesus: p22|
|11.||Hoffman, The Origins of Christianity: p256|
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