“The Jews asked him, ‘Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie,’” – John 1:25-27
Baptism carried a great deal of significance in Jesus’ time. Notice, though, that “the Jews” aren’t questioning John because he is baptizing, but because he’s not “the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet.” They don’t ask him, “Why are you dunking people in water?” This indicates to me that somewhere along the way the practice of baptizing people became the norm.
John the Baptist has stood as a seemingly-pivotal character in Christianity; he’s the forerunner for Christ – clearing the paths for Him, so to speak. The Gospel authors interpreted Isaiah 40:3 as speaking of John (while the small sect of Essenes located at Qumran interpreted this verse for themselves and their movement); “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” To the Gospel authors, John was a game-changer.
But what does his baptism mean? Can Christianity exist without it? Does John the Baptist even need to be a historical character in the Christian narrative? These are questions that drove most of my research for my Early Christianity class last winter. When it came time to write my paper, I didn’t get to talk much about John or his baptism since I was more focused on Christian baptism as a whole. But looking back over what I’ve studied, what I’ve written, and what I’ve read since last winter, I would have to say that John the Baptist is a fascinating character in Christianity.
Gerd Theissen offers interesting thoughts about John:
“His baptism is a symbolic action. And implicitly it has a political significance. If all Jews have to have themselves baptized again, the whole land is threatened with uncleanness. Here the question of cleanness is pointedly blown up – against a ruler who blatantly violated the commandments relating to cleanness in building his capital. John’s criticism of [Herod] Antipas’ marital politics also fits this picture. For Jewish marriage laws had been violated in this marriage. Here John the Baptist was merely articulating a widespread hostility to rulers who were increasingly alienating themselves from Jewish traditions,” – Pg. 35
To the Gospel authors, John’s baptism was something more than a political statement or a symbolic action; it was the ushering in of God’s kingdom. It was clearing the way for Jesus. But historically speaking, as plenty of scholars have discussed, John the Baptist and Jesus may have never had any contact with each other whatsoever. This idea is shocking to the average Bible-believing Christian, but hypothetically speaking, the Gospel authors could have adopted John and his baptism into the narrative of early (or as Theissen likes to say, “primitive”) Christianity. The encounters we see in the Gospels may have been creative insertions into the historical facts in order to get at the deeper picture: Many thought John was the Messiah or that his baptism was powerful; but Jesus supersedes him.
If it had been the center of my research paper, I would have argued that John didn’t need to be “preparing the way” for Jesus; He could have believed that he was waiting for someone else and Jesus surprised him as well. Case in point, re-read Matthew 11:2-3; “Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’” Many interpret this as John simply doubting his earlier convictions about Jesus (especially if we take Luke 1:41-44 as historically true), but what if he was discovering for the first time, here in Matthew 11 (or in Luke 7:18-35) that Jesus was the Messiah he had been waiting for all along? It changes things a little, doesn’t it? It describes John the Baptist with a little more humanity than what we might have been taught in Sunday school, doesn’t it?
Then what meaning can be found in his baptism if he had little or no communication with Jesus? If he was unaware that he was “preparing the way” for Jesus, then what good is his baptism? Mark’s Gospel (believed to be the earliest of all the Gospels – except for maybe Q, but that’s for another post) gives a pretty clear description of why John was baptizing: “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” (1:4). Much like his Jewish relatives at Qumran, John was enacting a symbolic action of repentance.
What does it mean, though, for Christianity? I think it means quite a bit: It was the model early Christians used to signify their death with Jesus (and to their sins) and rise to life with Jesus (and receiving the new life of the Holy Spirit). Of course this took a long time to get worked out in Christianity because we religious folk like to disagree on a lot of things, but without the model of John’s baptism of repentance, it may not have had much of an affect for the early readers to follow Christ. What I mean is, it’s quite possible that the early readers knew who John the Baptist was and if his work was interpreted as the beginning of Christianity, then the early followers might be much more convinced to follow.
I do not mean to imply that John the Baptist’s role in Christianity was entirely made up by the Gospel authors. John’s historicity is just as probable as Jesus’; Josephus talks (I think) more about John the Baptist than he does Jesus (he barely mentions Jesus). What I do mean to say is that John may not have had contact with Jesus and/or may not have believed Jesus was the Messiah he was prophesying about. Either way; John’s baptism was eventually done away with – even though it was the blueprint to Christian baptism.
Why was it done away with? Jesus had arrived. In John’s Gospel we see John the Baptist’s departure begin very early. Jesus had been teaching His disciples to baptize and happened to be doing so in eyesight of John. John’s disciples asked him why and he famously says, “He must increase, but I must decrease,” (3:30). To John the Gospel author, John the Baptist knew his time had come and his purpose was fulfilled.
And yet even to the author of Luke and Acts we see John’s baptism superseded by a baptism “into Christ.” In Acts 19:1-7, Paul encounters former disciples of John and says, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus,” and then proceeds to baptize them “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” (19:4-5). This is one passage I highlighted for discussion in my paper, so I’ll save most of the talk about it for the next post(s) (although, it’s worth pointing out that Paul never talks about this incident in his letters). But suffice it to say, when Jesus had died and then resurrected three days later, John’s baptism was no longer needed. It had served its purpose.
Theissen’s suggestion of political implications is still highly plausible. In fact, all of the elements discussed here (symbolism, political statements, allusions to Jesus, etc.) could be present in John’s baptism. I believe this is the beauty of the Scriptures we read; they’re so incredibly nuanced (layered in meaning) that they never run out of life. And I don’t think God intended them to, either.